Concluding our preview of the 20 titles in the running for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, which kicks off on Wednesday. Today’s selection includes new films from Terry Gilliam, David Gordon Green, John Curran, Emma Dante and Gianfranco Rosi.
“The Zero Theorem,” directed by Terry Gilliam: It’s been nearly 20 years since the last Terry Gilliam film that was widely embraced by either critics or audiences, but when it comes to festival programmers and industry peers, goodwill from the honorary Brit’s “Monty Python”-to-“12 Monkeys” glory days is a seemingly limitless resource. The Venice Film Festival has backed Gilliam in times both thick and thin. “The Fisher King” premiered there in 1991, winning him the Silver Lion; 14 years later, he received a frostier welcome on the Lido with the roundly (and rightly) panned “The Brothers Grimm.” Which way will “The Zero Theorem” go? We can hope that the presence of “Grimm” star Matt Damon in the cast isn’t a sign pointing to the latter route.
Gilliam continues to draw A-list talent to his wonky visions — or in this case, the vision of first-time screenwriter Pat Rushin. Two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz takes the lead as Qohen Leth, a brilliant, reclusive computer hacker in an Orwellian (though perhaps by this point we can say Gilliamesque?) corporate world who devotes his days to cracking the eponymous theorem — a formula that will reveal the meaning of life. Damon is his mysterious employer, known only as Management; Ben Whishaw is also on board, while Tilda Swinton plays an unspecified character called Dr. Shrink-Rom. Which, well, of course she does.
If you’re sensing parallels to one of Gilliam’s most famous screen fantasies, you’re not alone. “When I made ‘Brazil’ in 1984, I was trying to paint a picture of the world I thought we were living in then,” says Gilliam in his director’s statement. “‘The Zero Theorem’ is a glimpse of the world I think we are living in now.” He seems sincerely proud of the film, adding that it’s his lowest-budget production in several decades — though the skeptical might detect in a hint of defensiveness in his words. The film isn’t going to Toronto, so perhaps he knows it’s a niche item.
“Joe,” directed by David Gordon Green: 2013 is a year of quiet recovery for Green, the onetime indie darling whose unexpected career digression into mainstream slacker comedy hit a wall in 2011 with the universally loathed “The Sitter.” The director regrouped, returned to his indie roots but retained the offbeat humor for “Prince Avalanche,” a sweet, shuffling buddy comedy that was warmly received at Sundance earlier this year, and also won him Best Director at the Berlinale. Evidently reinvigorated, he’s back only a few months later with “Joe,” which appears to be a fully-fledged return to the woozy Southern Gothic romanticism of early works like “All the Real Girls” and “Undertow.”
Others may be tempted to draw on-paper comparisons to “Mud,” the recent indie hit from Green’s fellow North Carolina grad Jeff Nichols — and not just because both films star talented teen Tye Sheridan. Sheridan plays a down-on-his-luck kid who joins the lumber-clearing crew managed by kindly ex-con Joe (Nicolas Cage), whom he comes to see as a father figure. When the boy finally flees his unhappy home, it’s Joe with whom he seeks sanctuary. Micah Cyrus, Gary Hawkins and Meltem Oznalci adapted the screenplay from the acclaimed novel by the late Mississippi author Larry Brown.
Southern charms aside, the chief point of interest here is Cage potentially playing it straight — he’s been doing his gonzo schtick in unworthy films for so long that people may have forgotten what he’s like as an actual human being, That’s a narrative that could be conducive to Best Actor consideration at the festival, even if the performance isn’t revelatory. Factoring in Green’s resurgence, “Joe” is shaping up as a two-pronged comeback vehicle.
“Tracks,” directed by John Curran: I was surprised to find out just how long “Tracks” has been loitering in Hollywood’s pre-production purgatory: Julia Roberts was attached to make it in the mid-1990s — before, it seems, “Mary Reilly” clipped her creative wings. Her loss (and that of anyone curious to hear Roberts’ attempt at a Down Under accent) is Mia Wasikowska’s gain. The prodigiously talented 23-year-old has already proven her unconventional leading-lady chops in “Jane Eyre” and “Stoker,” but this may be her most challenging showcase yet: as Robyn Davidson, the young Australian explorer who trekked 1,700 miles across the Outback desert in 1977, she’ll be sharing large stretches of screen time with only a dog and four camels. An extra red-carpet draw, meanwhile, is the presence of Adam Driver — best-known for his compellingly strange, Emmy-nominated work in “Girls” — as a National Geographic photographer following her progress.
Davidson’s mad quest is one made for big-screen treatment, and it’s exciting to see Curran attached to it. The American filmmaker stumbled with his starry 2010 thriller “Stone,” but deserved far more credit than he received for 2006’s lyrical, watercolor-textured adaptation of “The Painted Veil” — if he can match that film’s combination of prettiness and character-based intimacy to this material, he could be onto a winner. He’s got a helpful ally in cinematographer Mandy Walker, who previously gave the Outback desert the sweeping travelogue treatment for Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia.” Iain Canning and Emile Sherman, the Oscar-winning producing team behind “The King’s Speech” and “Shame,” are steering the project.
The film is currently without US distribution, though Venice buzz will help in that department as it heads to the meat market of Toronto. As could an award, of course. Venice has a history of choosing young Best Actress winners — could Wasikowska be the latest?
“Via Castellana Bandiera,” directed by Emma Dante: For whatever reason, Italy’s biggest international festival successes rarely seem to emerge from Venice, which often seems to house less accessible local fare. Certainly, this debut feature from well-regarded Palermo-based theater director Emma Dante, an adaptation of her own novel, sounds fascinatingly eccentric: billed as a “Sicilian western,” the film is set entirely in a single Palermo street, one too narrow to allow two cars to pass each other. As the female drivers of said cars (Elena Cotta and Alba Rohrwacher, whom you may recognize from “I Am Love”) mutually refuse to back up, they remain in a deadlocked duel at the wheel, staring at each other for days on end. It would appear to be an allegorical conceit, though how the first-time director sustains it for 90 minutes is one of the more intriguing mysteries of the festival.
“Sacro GRA,” directed by Gianfranco Rosi: The lesser-hyped of two documentaries in this year’s Competition (the other being Errol Morris’s “The Unknown Known”), “Sacro GRA” is the fourth feature doc from Italian filmmaker Rosi — the previous two both won awards in lower-profile strands at Venice, so fest director Alberto Barbera clearly felt he was due a promotion. Perhaps the fact that it’s Rosi’s first film on an Italian subject made the difference: a study of Rome’s gigantic GRA ring road, and the individuals living around it, it’s the product of over two years’ filming on a minivan around the vicinity. I suspect it’s a tad too specialized to be a threat for the Lion, but you can’t accuse Barbera of not throwing curveballs into Competition.
Catch up with the first three parts of our Venice preview here, here and here. Our Venice Film Festival coverage kicks off on Wednesday, with the world premiere of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.” What films are you most looking forward to?