I have the great honor of being part of this year’s Catholic Jury at the 76th International Venice Film Festival on the island of Lido in Venezia, Italy. This is a beautiful resort island in the Venice Lagoon with gorgeous beaches facing out to the Adriatic Sea. It’s not too difficult to enjoy the beauty of nature and the beauty of cinematic art at this wonderful event in such a lovely historic place!
The jury is sponsored by SIGNIS, an international organization of Catholic Communicators recognized by the Vatican and is one of the oldest special juries at the festival. I am the president of a jury of five members of which are also included two Italians, one German, and one Japanese. Our work as a jury is to watch all twenty-one films that are in the main competition of the festival and apply our SIGNIS criteria to them. That criteria includes: good artistic quality, the evidence of some spiritual values, such as the dignity of the human person, the work for justice, peace, reconciliation, family values, or bringing forth the plight of the oppressed and suffering, universal in its application, and transformative in its experience. As a jury we decide which film most clearly meets these criteria and offer the filmmakers our award on the last day of the festival.
I would like to share with you a few films that had their world premiere here at Venice and will hopefully have their release in the US in the near future:
This French film stars Catherine Deneuve as Febienne, a well-seasoned film actress whose only ability in human relationships is to drive them away. Her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) leaves New York with her husband (Ethan Hawke), a TV actor, and their daughter Charlotte to celebrate her mother’s book release. When Lumir reads the book she is horrified to find that so much of this biography is actually untrue. When she confronts her mother about it, Fabienne casually replies, “I’m an actress. I won’t tell the naked truth.” And she goes on to continue, “My memories. My book.”
This tongue-in-cheek comedy delves deeply into the mother-daughter relationship and how that gets played out in relation to understanding the truth about oneself and accepting the truth of others. The film addresses one of of post-postmodernism’s questions, “What is truth?” Not only does this become muddled in everyone’s mind in the movie, it also leaves you with the question: “Whose truth do we believe?” It challenges us to question why truth and honesty are important in relationships and leaves the audience to ponder that for themselves and in our own lives.
Through revealing dialogue we come to discover the secrets everyone hides from one another, but most especially we see the struggle of Fabienne to reach beyond herself to the beauty and gift that is each human being. The film questions: What is acting? What is storytelling, really? It’s about the story, not necessarily about truth that can be verified and scientifically or religiously proved. Yet, when the actor’s life is a lived fantasy, then one misses out on real-life interactions that help us grow as human beings, such as, those situations that push us out of ourselves to give of ourselves for others — the true meaning of love and relationships. Fabienne is a classic, sophisticated actress whose personal life is about others serving her, but when connecting with her daughter once again and challenging those impulses, she becomes aware of her emotions like never before, as if she never knew they existed. Does a transformation happen at the end? That is left to the imagination of the viewer. As in some Woody Allen films, the audience is left to ponder their own lives and their own relationships — a true gift of cinema when done exceptionally well.
The idea of extra-terrestrial intelligent life forms continues to challenge the scientific community, as well as the artistic community. James Gray’s new film, Ad Astra, pushes us into the outer limits of our solar system with human beings already inhabiting the Moon and Mars, while reaching toward Neptune. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) follows in the steps of his famous father Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) as an astronaut that pushes the limit of human ability and knowledge. The time, says the opening credits, is one of both hope and conflict for the US and the world at large. Clifford disappeared many decades previous when he was on mission to Neptune, yet the space station has encountered terrifying and potentially catastrophic power surges presumably coming from somewhere near Neptune. Authorities believe Clifford to be alive. Roy is enlisted to help with the mission and the action begins.
In this deeply spiritual movie, Gray offers us a reflection on ourselves as human beings and in what lies our hope and fulfillment. He has us question our need for the pursuit of knowledge and advancing the human search for that something more that continually defies us, sometimes to the expense of not living in the moment and sharing that gift with those around us, especially family. Life is only important when it’s shared. Whenever movies deal with space they cannot but look to what is beyond us–to God. We see that in Cuaron’s “Gravity” and Nolan’s “Intersteller.” Perhaps the very idea of space stupefies our brains that as Captain McBride says on a video before he was lost near Neptune and considered dead, “I feel God’s presence in space.” This film provides much to ponder about life, relationships, hope, and human searching.
The Perfect Candidate
Set in present day Saudi Arabia, this film directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, stars Milanka Al Zahrani as Maryam, a young woman who has already defied the odds by becoming a medical doctor in a society that does not advance the role of women. She lives with her father, a musician, and two sisters. Their mother passed away a little while previously, who was a renowned wedding singer, since a woman could only sing publicly as a career at such events. Maryam works at a clinic that has no paved road leading to the entrance which is often flooded by rain and a broken pipe. She tries to contact city officials to get the road paved but to no avail. Her only option is to run for the municipal council in order to accomplish what she believes is crucial. She discovers what it means to run for public office and so holds a fundraising party for the women of the town, who cheer for her, but many of whom do not vote or follow only what their husbands say in political matters. Her father is somewhat avant guard in how he raises his daughters to think for themselves and pursue their dreams. When he is away on a concert tour, Maryam calls him to tell him, “I need you by my side.” To which he replies, “You’ve handled this all on your own so far. You’re doing just fine,” only to discover the controversy she has stirred up in his absence.
It is a film that challenges the status quo. In a society where women are second-class citizens, this film boldly questions the cultural customs and beliefs in a rather gentle and beautiful way. Maryam and her sisters respect their cultural boundaries, but also, in necessity, question them at the same time. When an older man at the clinic refuses her care because she is a woman and then sees that she saves his life through her correct diagnosis, he begins to see differently. Mindsets are shifted toward a greater humanitarian good–the gift of women in society, not only in the home. It is a beautiful film to honor the gift of womanhood by a woman.
More to come
This is just a taste to whet your appetite for the many powerfully challenging films soon to hit the international circuit by brilliant cinematic artists who use their creative gifts of storytelling to help us look deeply on our lives and the world around us. These stories challenge the status quo, help us reach for the stars in seeking the truth, and see the value and gift in relationships and how we need one another. For truly, “We are the movies and the movies are us!” I can’t remember who said that, but I believe it’ so true. Cinematic stories come from a place deep in the soul where emotions and feelings lie. They often reach down deep so as to provide another angle for which to understand our common human experience and our spiritual hungers. I look forward to sharing with you more of the upcoming films premiered in Venice in future articles. Lebanese director and writer Nadine Labaki says, “Cinema is not only about making people dream. It’s about changing things and making people think.”
Copyright 2019 Sr. Nancy Usselmann, FSP