By Pasquale Cicchetti
As the days passed and this year’s Venice Film Festival unfolded, I began to see a pattern emerging. The moral tension I first noticed in Cut began to develop as a common thread across the screenings, albeit represented with different shades and meanings.
In Nicolas Provost’s The Invader, like Cut featured in the Orizzonti (Horizons) section, this tension takes the shape of a narrative of hope and solitude. Amadou (Isaka Sawadogo) is an African migrant who lands on European shores filled with the promise of a better future. Somehow he manages to reach Brussels, where he finds illegal work as a construction worker. Harshly exploited though he may be, Amadou is still confident and bursting with expectations about his new life. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when his friend and coworker falls ill and then one night disappears from the basement where they all sleep. When Amadou finds out, his fury explodes and he flees into the city streets. Free, but with nowhere to go, the runaway migrant casually runs into Agnes (Stefania Rocca), a well-off business woman whom we already saw in the opening scene, on the shores where Amadou first landed. Untroubled by the social disparity between them, the African decides to pursue her romantically, and eventually she gives in to his charm and positivity. The flirt, however, does not last. Soon, the harsh reality of Amadou’s situation overcomes whatever love the two may feel for one another, and he falls back into his isolation again. Hurt and disillusioned, he is left with no recourse but to seek revenge on his exploiters.
Provost, in his first feature film, proves a masterful director. His characters’ personalities emerge naturally, through the unspoken truths of their bodily attitudes and gestures. The mise-en-scène is stark, restrained, rid of any judgmental perspective—even when things turn ugly. In the opening sequence, we see Amadou and Agnes staring at each other on the beach, bathed in a dreamlike, glowing light: two silent human beings faced with the primal beauty—and dignity—of one another’s naked flesh. The natural aesthetic pleasures of this sequence—the bodies, the shore—are immediately reversed in the following shot, by a kaleidoscopic camera-car view of the tunnel that leads Amadou to Brussels. Provost gives his viewers a glimpse of Eden, only to bring them immediately back to our tough socioeconomic realities. In Brussels, neither Amadou’s exceptional temperament nor the mutual attraction that links he and Agnes can bring him (and us) back to that original moment of (human) grace. The clandestine worker and the business woman, the African and the European, the black and the white: they are hidden under too many conflicting cultural layers, and the unspoken, instinctual recognition of their first encounter is lost and gone forever.
A similar set of premises seems to be at work in Shame. The highly anticipated second feature from British video-artist Steve McQueen revolves around a handsome New Yorker in his thirties (Michael Fassbender, again) with an addiction to sex. It’s an obsession that he compulsively expresses in a comprehensive variety of ways: porn, onanism, one-night stands, prostitutes.
Here again, the city is featured as a socioeconomic organism that interferes with the characters’ ability to reach each other through physical contact. Brandon does, of course, touch the bodies of his many partners, as well as his own, but he never manages to establish a human contact. McQueen stages a continual consumption, a flow of meaningless encounters engraved in the character’s daily routine as a metropolitan citizen. The office, the underground, the club: the topical spaces of the city come together to form one interchangeable setting for Brandon’s obsessive quest. His indulgence is not free from guilt. Rather, the character appears painfully aware of the shallow reality of his habits and yet is unable to find a way out. The sudden arrival of Brandon’s messed-up sister, desperate for attention and emotionally unstable, pushes the narrative to a breaking point and—eventually—paves the way for possible redemption. In the end, however, the film remains open, and we the viewers are left in doubt as to Brandon’s destiny.
Similarly unresolved is the situation designed by Abel Ferrara for his 4:44 Last Day on Earth. The film, featuring Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh, is an apocalyptic vision delivered with a domestic, almost surrealist twist. As the story takes off, the state of affairs is as follows: Al Gore was right, global environmental pollution has led the planet to a point of no return, and the end of the world is a matter of hours. Knowing this, the two main characters spend those last hours at home, making love, calling their relatives on Skype, sleeping, painting, and writing, making love again, having Chinese food for dinner.
So while Ferrara presents his viewers with such catastrophe, he manages to convey a peculiar, uncanny atmosphere of paradox. The end of the world is depicted as a global festival, a sort of New Year’s Eve broadcast on planetary scale. Despite a few hints of despair throughout the film, most of the time the characters get ready for the event in a philosophical, almost jovial way. Families are reunited online, friends get together for a final toast, true love is celebrated. As the film wears on, the opposition between the ongoing flow of reality-as-mediation—live TV news, talks shows, religious gurus addressing people from the screen—and the intimate, sheltered nest of the characters’ home becomes starker. When the end is nigh, the characters are drawn back to each other, external reality has fallen out of sight, and the religious undertones eventually emerge into a bodily ritual of love.
The link between bodies and spiritual redemption strikes me as one the festival’s motifs. When placed within an urban environment, bodies are either unable to bypass the restraints brought upon them by culture (The Invader), or they are framed within an obsessive pattern of consumption (Shame). On the other hand, the domestic scope of Ferrara’s film allows for the communion of bodies to point toward a veritable salvation.