Can a handful of films screened at the annual Venice Film Festival enlighten us on the workings of power in contemporary society? Let’s have a look at how they depict power’s more tragic aspects.
The Portuguese film A herdade (The Domain) by Tiago Guedes resembles the Italian Bertolucci’s epos 1900 (1976) – where we follow the powerful and their subjects through several generations. A herdade follows the wealthy Fernandes family: 1946 – The father raises his son, João, with brutal discipline; 1973 – Portugal’s nepotistic and fascist upper class tries to force the new head of the family, a grown-up João (played by Albano Jerónimo) to support them – but he resists even though related. He is not corrupt.
As the Portuguese Carnation Revolution overthrows the authoritarian regime of Estados Novos in 1974, the rich fascists are forced to flee to Brazil. João, on the other hand, has remained an independent landowner – and stays. He is challenged by the adversities of the age, but remains a wealthy plutocrat, just like how his father raised him. He likes to have some fun with the women in the workforce – and, slowly but surely, decadence sets in. 1991 – the estate, with its enormous grain and rice fields, which had supplied Portugal for years are sold off. Piecemeal and riches have dwindled. Now, the same thing happens to the family, who starts to desert him. Too many lies have been told. João‘s destiny has caught up with him. His wife has left him. His young son remembers the cold baths he was given as a child, which were supposed to make him stronger. Yet, in a fight, he tells his father that his emotions have stayed just as ice-cold as he walks out the door. Abandoned by everyone, João gallops on his beloved black stallion in a desperate craze, until the horse finally plunges and has to be shot. Another casualty. With that, the film ends where it began, with an aging João seeking refuge in the little ruin where he used to play in his childhood. Still alone.
Too much power tends to, yet again, end with tragedy and corruption.
In Venice, we also saw the Italian director Francesco Rosi (1922-2015) in the documentary-style biopic Citizen Rosi, made by his daughter Carolina. He was among the more political neorealists of the ‘60s and ‘70s, together with Paolo Pasolini, The Taviani brothers, and Ettore Scola. As we watch the documentary, it dawns on us that it is actually a critical portrait of the Italian society, presented through casual remarks as father and daughter sit on the sofa, rewatching his films – about power constellations, corruption, and the mafia.
Can a handful of films screened at the annual Venice Film Festival enlighten us on the workings of power in contemporary society?
Rosi has repeatedly been screened retrospectively in Venice, like a couple of years ago, when we saw the feature film Le mani sulla città (Hands over the City, 1963) about a mafia-infested and corrupt construction business. Rosi’s breakthrough was possibly the mafia-film La Sfida (The Challenge, 1958), which stirred up controversy as it insinuated the mafia controlled the government, or Salvatore Giuliano (1962), about Sicilia, the police, and the mafia. And even as late as The Palermo Connection (1990), the topic of the mafia comes up again.
On the same sofa, we also see Roberto Saviano (Gomorrah, and more) who, in his mafia-stories, is obviously influenced by Rosi. They talk about corrupt developers and conditions that are still grave concerns in contemporary Italy. At the Berlinale earlier this year, Saviano explained that he still fights the ingrained and barbaric presence of the mafia – a fight that has required him to stay under constant police protection for the past twelve years. Even if the mafia is less evidently murderous today than they were in Palermo in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they now reside in the hidden depths of politics and commerce. As my friend, the taxi driver told me in Sicily: If you have a bothersome competitor, you wouldn’t get him killed, but rather get a corrupt judge to imprison him to get him out of the way. Or, like one of our staff-writers, Francesca Borri has said about her Italian hometown Bari: they control the whole shopping street where she spends her days writing. If a car were stolen, you wouldn’t go to the police, but rather try to solve it by resorting to one of the local clans.
Corruption is a topic in several of the films at the festival, like Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat – about the Panama Papers, where Meryl Streep & co. close in on this corrupt, tax-evading business (based on Jake Bernstein’s book Secrecy World). There is also the well-wrought An Officer and a Spy (J’Accuse) by Roman Polanski, about the power at the top during the Dreyfus affair? And the satirical docu-fiction Mafia is Not What it Used to Be by Franco Maresco. Corruption and power also lie behind the documentary Citizen K by the skillful Alex Gibney: Yes, what stories do you think Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovskij can tell from his Swiss exile?
Too much power tends to, yet again, end with tragedy and corruption.
Also, there is the Italian Paolo Sorrentino and his luscious tv-series The New Pope, where two episodes from the coming season were aired (following The Young Pope). In the highest Vatican circles of power, the ultra-conservative Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) falls ill, to be followed by the liberal and compromising John Paul (John Malkovich at his very best). Sorrentino builds his story, set in Rome and Venezuela in a humorous and estheticized manner telling a story of nepotism with great wit and sensuality.
Are the tragedies of life, of mafia and corruption, really just typical of Italy and the festival in Venice?
Olivier Assays feature film Wasp Network is closely based on Fernando Morai’s book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War: The Story of the Cuban Five (2015). Since a host of exiled Cubans in the US wanted to take down Fidel Castro in the ‘90s, scores of Cuban spies were sent out to infiltrate them in order to stop terrorist assaults on Cuba. As is well known, they would attack tourist beaches and hotels so to stop or paralyze the tourist economy. They financed their own anti-Castro enterprise through drug trafficking from Columbia and other places. But Castro’s own spies were snitched on in Miami, where the FBI arrested them all, sentencing them to long incarcerations to stop terrorism. As Castro himself comments at the end of the film, the reaction from the US was ridiculous, as the US also has CIA agents stationed all over the world – in order to stop terrorism and to secure American interests.
Back to Italy and the Italian tv-series Zero, Zero, Zero from 2015, based on the cocaine themed book by Saviano of the same name, directed by Stefano Sollima and Janus Metz. Saviano also helped write the series – about this «white gold,» transported from South-America to Mexico and Italy.
The series begins in Calabria, where an aging mafioso of the so-called ‘Ndrangheta covertly rules from his hole in the ground. The element of tragedy is striking, as his voice affirms the mentality that governs all life is: people will turn their back on you unless you give them something. Or, they turn on you when they don’t need you anymore. If your kids don’t get enough money, they’ll tell you that you don’t love them enough. Even wives and mothers are prone to claim of «you don’t love me” if you don’t provide for them. The old Italian from Calabria is about to be killed off by competing clans, only to promise the dizzying sum of nine hundred million euros to their competitors, just to keep them in check.
when power corrupts, personal tragedy ensues
The series, based on Saviano’s own travels, takes place between Italians, corrupt Mexican military officials, and American shipping moguls. Interestingly, the series makes several leaps in time, distinguishing it from all the aforementioned films and series that are strictly chronological. Italian, English, Spanish and Calabrian are all spoken in the film!
And again, when power corrupts, personal tragedy ensues: The shipowner in the film, Edward Lynwood (David Byrne), has a daughter and a son – like the siblings in the Portuguese A herdade – the young woman is strong and bold, while her brother is clumsy and introverted. Are the children, yet again, suffering due to their parent’s conduct? You will find out when the rest of the series premieres on Amazon Prime next year…
Also, read about the best documentary from Venice 2019 – HERE