Israeli drama, homoerotic thriller take Venice by storm

Heavyweights took the Venice competition by storm on Monday, with Xavier Dolan unveiling a lush Hitchcockian thriller and Amos Gitai offering a technically impressive reflection on Jewish-Arab conflict while Terry Gilliam’s latest proved a bore.


With world powers deciding whether to attack Syria, tensions in and over the Middle East have started to crash the bubble that is the Venice Film Festival.

Conversations about Obama’s decision to submit military action to a Congressional vote, and how French President Francois Hollande should proceed, can indeed be overheard in line for press screenings or on café patios that line the Lido island.

Such current events gave Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai’s “Ana Arabia”, which screened in competition Monday night, a timely edge.

One of Israel’s most internationally renowned auteurs, Gitai boasts a hefty, though uneven body of work ranging from early experimental films to the hushed domestic drama of “Kadosh” (1999) to war film “Kippur” (2000) to “Free Zone” (2005), which starred Natalie Portman.

His new movie is a slightly didactic, but ultimately poignant visual essay, filmed in one impressive 80-minute take, that follows pretty Israeli journalist Yael (Yuval Scharf) as she reports on a tiny enclave of Arabs and Jews living together in Jaffa.

That Gitai is able to conjure multitudes of sadness in a single, continuous shot speaks not just to the pain of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also to the director’s own talents of observation and technical prowess.

The camera glides behind and alongside Yael while she wanders the apartment complex where a now-deceased Holocaust survivor lived with her Muslim husband, Yussuf, and their children. Gitai closes in on Yael’s face, sometimes pulling away to survey the grounds, surrounding trees, or sky, as she interviews Yussuf, his daughter and, most interestingly, the Jewish widow of one of his sons.

What emerges from these images, as well as from the somewhat stagy monologues of the Israelis and Palestinians Yael encounters, is a microcosmic portrait of tangled Jewish-Arab history marked by hostility, forbidden love and shared passion for the land they’re fighting over.

Punctuated by a piercing string score and moments of humour (there’s an amusing debate about dental work), “Ana Arabia” is an exercise that’s easier to admire than enjoy. But there are reminders throughout that Gitai is, perhaps more than ever, a filmmaker worthy of our attention.

Dolan does Hitchcock, expertly

Meanwhile, a younger cinema heavyweight, Xavier Dolan, unveiled his new film in competition: “Tom à la ferme” (“Tom at the Farm”), a dark, lusciously directed psychological thriller that marks a confident change of pace for the 24-year-old French-Canadian.

Xavier Dolan in "Tom at the Farm".
Xavier Dolan in "Tom at the Farm".

The Tom of the title is a young gay man from Montreal (played by Dolan, in hipster-punk attire and a curly blonde mullet), who travels to rural Quebec for the funeral of his recently deceased boyfriend, Guillaume. When he gets there, Tom realises through conversations with Guillaume’s mother (the wonderful Lise Roy, a dead ringer for IMF chief and former French finance minister Christine Lagarde) that no one there has ever heard of him – or even knows that Guillaume was gay.

The only person who has a clue is Guillaume’s older brother Francis, a handsome and psychotically hot-tempered brute (a terrifying Pierre-Yves Cardinal) who swiftly draws Tom into a sadomasochistic, homoerotically charged game of cat-and-mouse.

Dolan’s last film, the dazzling cross-dresser epic “Laurence Anyways”, was criticised in certain quarters for violating some rule of stylistic taste. Those people missed the fact that Dolan was using his bold, baroque style -- lots of slow-mo and music, generous splashes of colour, off-centre compositions -– to express his characters’ innermost emotions.

“Tom at the Farm” is the first Dolan movie that he didn’t write himself – it’s based on a play by Michel Marc Bouchard – and despite the heated nature of the genre he’s working in, the director is more restrained than usual. It’s a testament to what a fine filmmaker Dolan is that his new work never feels stage-bound or derivative, unfolding, rather, with considerable spontaneity and suspense.

With shades of Hitchcock and Polanski (evident in Gabriel Yared’s lush, nerve-wracking score), Dolan turns “Tom at the Farm” into a sort of twisted love story and, as Tom struggles to free himself from Francis’ grip, an unsettling reflection on gay self-loathing and desire. His camerawork is clean and vibrant as ever – tracking shots that stalk the main character from behind, close-ups of faces and eruptions of violence that nearly cross into foreplay – without an ounce of the self-consciousness that marred his debut “I Killed My Mother”.

Dolan also confirms that he is an excellent actor in his own right. With sly humour and a detached, almost stoner-ish gaze, he effortlessly conveys Tom’s confused mix of grief, lust, pride and fury.

On paper, “Tom at the Farm” is nasty stuff, but Dolan injects the story with enough recognisable human feeling that it never plays as overly cruel or arch. He is, quite simply, one of the most vital, fascinating filmmakers working today.

Gilliam’s latest lands with a thud

Another much adored auteur, Terry Gilliam, also presented a film in competition on Monday -- though the less said about “The Zero Theorem”, the better.

Christophe Waltz, left, in "The Zero Theorem".
Christophe Waltz, left, in "The Zero Theorem".

A leaden slice of futuristic sci-fi set in London, the film stars the always-game Christoph Waltz as a computer genius suffering from existential anxiety while working on some incomprehensible assignment. Complicating his life further are visits from flirtatious beauty Bainsley (French actress Melanie Thierry) and Bob (Lucas Hedges), the son of his boss (played by a sheepish-looking Matt Damon).

I assume Gilliam, whose visual imagination has always surpassed his storytelling abilities, is having fun with this, even if the “The Zero Theorem” conveys little sense of play or pleasure. Many Gilliam-esque ingredients are there: quirkily outfitted and coiffed extras, gadgets that buzz and beep, trademark high- and low-angle shots. But the film plods along lifelessly, busily, all clutter and noise. It never comes close to the mad grandeur of “Brazil”, the narrative momentum of “Twelve Monkeys” or even the charm of Gilliam’s mess of a last film, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”.

Gilliam remains one of cinema’s most uncompromising visionaries, but here’s hoping that next time, he shapes those visions into something worth seeing.


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