By Gautaman Bhaskaran
Although the Venice Film Festival is the oldest in the world, it has been struggling to attract the press and the public. With the Toronto International Film Festival — which begins its roll immediately after Venice — getting bigger and bigger with a huge market as well, the Italian event has not been having an easy time.
Yet, one must give Venice its due. It continues to present some real gems, some of which have had a great run at the Oscars.
Here are two movies at the recently-concluded Festival on Venice’s Lido that I loved. One was from Iran. This country, despite all the obstacles that filmmakers there face from the ruling clergy, has been consistently giving us some great cinema.
Director Vaihid Jalilvand’s Wednesday, May 9 explores humanism that shines as a silver lining to the sadness and misery in Iranian society. In a way, it is a variation of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema, where a movie director advertises for actors and just about all of Tehran’s unemployed turn up. In Wednesday, May 9, a philanthropist offers a huge sum of money to the needy that draws mammoth crowds — which get restless and unmanageable after a point.
We see three different stories all linked to one another. The first is Leila’s tale — who stands along with her little daughter in the midst of the crowds outside the house of a man, Jalal, who had placed an insertion in a local paper offering to give away 30 million tomans to one in need. Later, she would meet Jalal, who 20 years ago broke off an engagement with her for an unknown reason. The money can help cure her invalid husband. But his bloated ego prevents him from letting his wife accept the charity.
A different predicament is that of young Setareh. She is an orphan who lives with her aunt and cousin. The hot-headed cousin, when he learns that Setereh has secretly married a young man, beats both of them, and the girl’s husband lands in jail. The only way he can get out is by paying blood money to the cousin, which is 30 million tomans. So Setareh is part of the teaming hundreds who are outside Jalal’s home that day.
And then there is Jalal’s story, a man who once lost his five-year-old son because of lack of money for medical treatment. So Jalal feels that his donation will ease his own suffering.
Wednesday, May 9 is a superb work that has some of the finest pieces of performances and a script which ensures that the drama does not turn into melodramatic mishmash. After all, the stories are all about pain and pathos, suffering and sadness. And Jalilvand, who acts as Jalal, presents a nuanced portrayal of three lives whose paths cross.
From Argentina, I saw a powerfully evocative work, The Clan, helmed by Pablo Trapero. It talks about the sordid goings on in the 1980s, when the country was passing through the notoriously fearful years of military dictatorship.
The Clan, inspired by a true story, had a fantastic start in Argentina on August 13. It broke the boxoffice record for the best opening weekend — outselling the likes of Mission Impossible-Rogue Nation. The Clan sold a million and a half tickets in two weeks, beating the figures set by last year’s Oscar nominated anthology film, Wild Tales.
The Clan unfolds as Argentina transits from a dictatorial regime to democracy. The dictatorship was a terribly dark era when 30,000 people were killed or abducted or missing.
Arquimedes Puccio, the patriarch, is at the centre of the movie, and he and wife Epifania seem like an ordinary couple living in a middle class neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. But beneath this seemingly calm and happy exterior lie a black secret. Arquimedes along with his son, Alejandro, kidnap rich men and women, demand huge ransoms and kill the victims once the deals are through. Alejandro, a champion rugby player, goes unnoticed as he identifies potential targets for his father. He is literally a decoy in his father’s operations.
In 1982, at the time of Argentina’s disastrous attempt to capture the Falkland Islands from Britain, the Puccios abducted their first victim, Ricardo Manoukian, a 23-year-old teammate of Alejandro’s. Over the next three years, they would kidnap three others and murder all but the last, a businesswoman — who was held captive in the most unimaginably filthy conditions in a dingy basement room. The woman had powerful connections, and the Puccios were cornered. The curtain came down on their crime drama in August 1985.
“My film tells the story of this family from the inside and, through it, we discover its criminal life, this horrific kidnapping enterprise, and from there the historical context of the country,” said Trapero at a press conference soon after The Clan was screened at Venice. It depicts a father of “unspeakable coldness and cruelty, and this son who lived in submission despite the fact that he had everything he needed to escape,” he said.
Arquimedes was sentenced to life in prison and died at age 83. To his dying day, he denied that he had committed the crimes. Alejandro spent more than 20 years in prison, attempting suicide four times. He died in 2008, soon after his release.
Trapero’s work is much more than the story of the Puccios. It plays more like a political parable closely related to Argentina’s background. One can easily draw strong parallels between this family and the military junta, which ruled over the country from the late 1970s to the early 1980s that killed and tortured just about anybody suspected of subversive tendencies. Arquimedes cajoles, threatens and bribes his son to get his support in the nefarious activities.
The military generals did the same, and to emphasise this connection, Trapero shows real footage of the dictatorship, including General Leopoldo Galtieri saying on television that losing the Malvinas was not really a defeat! Indeed, the cellar where the Puccios confined their victims was not very different from the country’s inhuman jails.
Trapero paints a horrific picture of the family and presents the innocent image it projected to the world outside its home. In real life, the Puccios were god-fearing, always beginning their meals with a prayer. Arquimedes’ wife taught at a school, and in the evenings, the patriarch was seen helping his young daughters with their homework. But behind all this was an ominous operation that was shielded by corrupt police officers, who were not changed even after the junta fell.
Gautaman Bhaskaran just covered the Venice Film Festival for the enth time, and may be e-mailed at [email protected]
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