Venice film festival 2016: out of the White House, into the Vatican…

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Natalie Portman shines as a grieving Jackie K, Jude Law makes a slick pontiff and Terrence Malick scrutinises the universe again in a festival littered with big names

Every major film festival is essentially an island or at least its own self-enclosed microclimate and the fact that the Lido literally is an island can sometimes make the Venice film festival seem entirely cut off from the outside world.

This year, however, Venice felt like an integral part of the flow of the bigger universe. One reason was because its opening-night festivities were cancelled in solidarity with those affected by the recent Italian earthquake. Another reason is because you felt that more of its selections were likely to matter to the outside world than in some recent editions.

This year, the first few days were ruthlessly front-stacked with big-name films. This meant that by the time I arrived during the first weekend, I had already missed Damien Chazelles opening musical, La La Land, Tom Fords Nocturnal Animals and Denis Villeneuves alien contact epic, Arrival the latter two starring Amy Adams, all of them widely admired.

Scheduling nobbled Mel Gibsons Hacksaw Ridge for me, but this second world war drama seems to have done wonders in rehabilitating Gibsons reputation. There was plenty more to feast on. One outstanding title was Jackie, inventively directed by the brilliant Chilean film-maker Pablo Larran. Natalie Portman plays Jacqueline Kennedy as she copes with the aftermath of JFKs assassination. Noah Oppenheims script presents her story through that time-honoured device of a press interview (Billy Crudup is very good as the journalist), with Jackie talking us through the events in Dallas, her famous 1962 TV tour of the White House, and the shock of simultaneously losing a husband and her first lady status. The moment at which Lyndon Johnson is inaugurated, suddenly leaving Jackie an isolated figure on the sidelines, is magnificently poignant. Portman has never quite seemed a heavyweight player before now I wasnt convinced by her in her other Venice feature, eccentric French period piece Planetarium but in Jackie she gives an authoritatively nuanced performance. The next awards season seems hers for the asking.

Jude
Jude Law is a sulphurously charismatic pontiff in Paolo Sorrentinos The Young Pope. Photograph: Gianni Fiorito/SKY

Other auteur names included Paolo Sorrentino, returning to the Roman follies of The Great Beauty with an eccentric peek under the skirts of the Vatican in The Young Pope, his TV series for Sky. The first two episodes were shown here, and they dont yet convince that the show will be addictive, but Jude Law is sulphurously charismatic as a smoothie pontiff. The usual Sorrentino visual tricks are here sweeping glides through marbled corridors, nuns playing football in slo-mo but they feel heavier than in his best work. And the English-language dialogue theological, political or just plain off-the-wall is indigestibly prolix.

Equally indigestible was Voyage of Time, Terrence Malicks latest extended gasp at the wonders of the universe. This religiose, abstract epic could be described as a prayer in images, and it will bring out the atheist in many a hardened critic. It feels like a bundle of trimmings from his Tree of Life a rapturous assemblage of volcanoes, ice floes, creatures of the deep, the odd CGI dinosaur and an extended sequence showing the life of primitive man, like a slightly less hirsute sequel to the opening of Kubricks 2001. Along the way, Cate Blanchett recites nay, intones a poetic hymn to a universal Mother (Oh Life Hear my voice). Theres barely an image here that isnt magnificent but put them all together and the result is cosmic kitsch.

Intergalactic weirdness of a wilder kind came from the Mexican director Amat Escalante, whose name often promises festival controversy (Cannes-goers still speak with shudders of his ultra-violent Heli, known to some as the Mexican flaming penis movie). The Untamed is the most unrepentantly outr film here, about a working-class family whose lives are drastically affected by meeting a young woman and her nightmare lover a tentacular alien being that embodies the pleasure principle at its intensest. Both distressing and compelling in its mix of HP Lovecraft ickiness and everyday realism, The Untamed got some unlooked-for laughs from a nervous preview audience. But its a crazily audacious film and no one whos seen it will touch calamari again in a hurry.

While The Untamed is surely destined for cult reputation, a film that probably isnt not least because it insists on practically flashing the words INSTANT CULT CLASSIC at you in scarlet neon throughout is The Bad Batch. This wearisome piece of post-apocalypse hipsterism is Ana Lily Amirpours follow-up to her superb vampire debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night but shes disappointingly turned out a derivative, unpleasantly brutal desert-set fantasy about a young woman (scowlingly blank Suki Waterhouse) getting even after a nasty encounter with some body-building cannibals. Jim Carrey is unrecognisable as a silent, bearded hermit, while connoisseurs of dud Keanu Reeves performances will enjoy him in vintage leaden form as a Hefner-esque tyrant in a Burt Reynolds moustache.

Timothy
Timothy Spall, who plays a wheezy, lofty Ian Paisley in The Journey, on the red carpet in Venice last week. Photograph: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Closer to the mainstream, there was The Journey, Nick Hamms imagining of a car trip shared by lifelong opponents Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness before the 2006 Northern Ireland peace talks. Its a stagey, somewhat contrived piece, but the acting is a treat, and there are relishable comic touches in Colin Batemans screenplay. Timothy Spall is a wheezy, lofty Paisley, Colm Meaney is impish as McGuinness, and Toby Stephens and John Hurt excel watching from the sidelines as Tony Blair and an MI5 grandee respectively

There were two great documentary portraits. Andrew Dominiks One More Time With Feeling charts the making of the new Nick Cave album, Skeleton Tree. But it also shows the singer and his wife Susie Bick dealing with the recent loss of their teenage son, Arthur. Its an intimate, sometimes uncomfortable but never intrusive film, and Dominik shooting in black-and-white 3D sensitively matches the private life and the life of Caves incantatory new songs.

Actor
Actor and writer Julia Roy with director Benot Jacquot in Venice for the screening of A jamais. Photograph: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

Differently revealing is David Lynch: The Art Life, in which the director engagingly sheds his aura as Weirdest Auteur in America to show himself as an enthusiastic, self-aware creator of paintings, sculptures and, well, things, and talks us through his pre-Eraserhead early years as an art student, bohemian and teenage rebel. You could never have imagined ever learning this much about Lynch the man, and fans will love him all the more for it.

As for people making a mark in front of the camera, this has been a good year for new female talent. Two French names to watch: one is Julia Roy, who stars in and scripts Benot Jacquots jamais, an adaptation of Don DeLillos novella The Body Artist. Its uncanny, if a little arch, but, stealing the show from Mathieu Amalric and an eerie old house, Roy makes the show her own.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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