Some Dark Visions at the Venice Film Festival

Some Dark Visions at the Venice Film Festival

The 75th edition of the Venice International Film Festival has elicited keen anticipation for its feast of films by major directors. It is easy to be dazzled by the roll call of auteurs presenting their latest work — from Joel and Ethan Coen to Mike Leigh to Alfonso Cuarón to Mary Harron to Olivier Assayas to Errol Morris. And once again, Damien Chazelle opens the festival, with the astronaut drama “First Man,” just one year after “La La Land” began its road to the Oscars.

Many of this year’s filmmakers share visions of worlds in crisis or shattered by violence and turmoil.

Mr. Leigh’s “Peterloo” revisits the 1819 suffrage demonstration that was brutally quashed by the British government. Paul Greengrass’s “22 July” restages the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway in which Anders Behring Breivik killed more than 80 people.

Ms. Harron’s “Charlie Says” examines the Charles Manson murders through the lens of his jailed female followers. Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale” sets a brutal revenge tale in 1820s Tasmania. Even Mr. Cuarón’s “Roma,” centering on a middle-class family in early 1970s Mexico, includes what is known as the Corpus Christi Massacre.

Many of these films are re-creating the past in a reflection of the problems and unrest that loom today. Mr. Leigh has never been shy about portraying the class circumstances of the richly realized characters in “Mr. Turner,” “Vera Drake” and other films, but “Peterloo” takes his work in historical drama to another level.

“It’s about the franchise, it’s about education, it’s about people having a voice, and it’s about people with power and wealth and people without power and wealth,” Mr. Leigh said. He added that the film’s story arrived at a powder-keg moment in our own century.

“We’re on the edge all the time, aren’t we?” he said. “We’re in a volatile world that we couldn’t have anticipated even 10 years ago.”

Set in a more recent, also volatile era, “Charlie Says” flashes back to the Manson killings in 1969, viewed from the perspective of followers later in prison reckoning with their actions.

“We didn’t want to overdramatize or heighten the violence, just present what happened in a matter-of-fact way,” Ms. Harron, who also directed “American Psycho,” wrote in an email. She said she “wanted the murders to be as clumsy, brutal and tragically pointless as they were in real life.”

Several films at Venice do not adapt dramas from history, but these, too, hold the prospect of chaos and violence. Luca Guadagnino follows up “Call Me by Your Name” with “Suspiria,” a reworking of the gory 1977 horror classic. Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly star as fraternal assassins in Jacques Audiard’s “The Sisters Brothers.”

Also set in the Old West, Joel and Ethan Coen’s “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” tells six stories from the American frontier. And the cult Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto unleashes a samurai’s saga in “Killing.”

“This is a trend of contemporary auteur films: the capacity to reflect on contemporary society and the main problems we have to face like violence, migration, democracy and the traditional values that we are used to living with,” Alberto Barbera, director of the festival, said by phone from Venice. “The Coen brothers’ Western for example is not just a simple tribute to the genre.”

That unpredictability is part of the appeal of the Venice selection: seeing how the sensibilities of different directors shape and are shaped by their subject matter.

Mr. Audiard won a Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2015 for his Paris immigrant drama “Dheepan,” but in “The Sisters Brothers,” he adapts a quirky historical novel set in Oregon during the Gold Rush.

“I don’t have a particular affinity for the Westerns that are deemed classics — a world of brutal men, with big ideals that don’t prevent them from killing anything that moves: Indians, bisons, neighbors,” Mr. Audiard wrote in an email, explaining his attraction to the tenderness of the story’s brotherly relationship.

Other filmmakers are happy to follow their genre premises wherever they may take them, messages and story morals be damned. S. Craig Zahler premiered “Brawl in Cell Block 99” last year at Venice and this year brandishes “Dragged Across Concrete,” a crime thriller with Mel Gibson, Vince Vaughn and Michael Jai White.

“I’m interested in that kind of story where you’re watching people who are trying to do something good but are doing something bad to get it, or the opposite,” Mr. Zahler, who also publishes novels, said.

“Dragged Across Concrete” and other films show that Venice is not primarily a launchpad for traditional prestige fare. Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Favourite” stars Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz in a royal court comedy that is not afraid to misbehave. In “Our Time,” director Carlos Reygadas and his wife, Natalia López, play a couple in an open relationship. Julian Schnabel creates an intense, close-up portrait of Vincent van Gogh in “At Eternity’s Gate,” starring Willem Dafoe. And Laszlo Nemes’s Academy Award win for the radically immersive “Son of Saul” has spurred curiosity about his Venice entry, the period drama “Sunset.”

Tucked among the fiction tales at Venice is a robust assortment of documentaries from Frederick Wiseman, Mr. Morris (profiling Steve Bannon) and Sergei Loznitsa, as well as Tsai Ming-liang’s experiment in close-ups. The premiere of Orson Welles’s long-awaited unfinished film “The Other Side of the Wind” will be accompanied by a making-of film from Morgan Neville.

The presence of Welles in the lineup is perhaps an apt reminder that independent-minded filmmakers will go where their imaginations take them. Venice in 2018 is a festival that can happily show both Bradley Cooper’s musical “A Star Is Born” and the rather more unclassifiable drama “The Mountain,” from Rick Alverson.

Mr. Alverson’s film heads into the annals of history, as many of his colleagues have done, but in this case it’s a story inspired by the maverick lobotomist (or lobotomist maverick) Walter Freeman. Jeff Goldblum plays a character based on Dr. Freeman, who freely imposed his medical authority to rack up thousands of operations.

“There is a consistent impulse for figures in positions of power (whether they are doctors or directors) to prefer their audiences in submissive states, pacified, vulnerable and malleable,” Mr. Alverson said in an email.

It would be hard for audiences at Venice to stay submissive or pacified this year, as one filmmaker after another takes them out of the Mediterranean sunshine and into a very dark place.

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