Venice Film Festival 2019 The Laundromat'Movie Review Baradwaj Rangan

There were two films whose subject matter looked intimidating, especially a few days (and several films) into the festival. Adults in the Room, by Costa-Gavras, was about “the unsuccessful attempts by Greece to influence the European troika during the debt crisis of 2015” — that description was enough to make me skip it. Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat, though, felt more approachable, even if it’s about the Panama Papers, which I have heard of but know precious little about. (The screenplay is based on Jake Bernstein’s book, Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite.) It turned out that Soderbergh had made this movie exactly for people like me, who have heard of (but know precious little about) things like money laundering, shell companies, tax avoidance (and what makes it different from tax evasion)… Simply put, The Laundromat does for international high-finance what The Big Short did for the financial crisis of 2007-08, triggered by the US housing market crash.

venice film festival 2019

 

Meryl Streep stars as Ellen Martin, who’s puzzled, after an accident, when her insurance firm fails to fulfil its obligation. She pursues a trail that takes the story all over the world, and to subplots that Ellen is not even connected to. This is a very obvious message movie, and some of its messages are too on-the-nose. (“The world is just men hiding behind piles of paper.”) But the cast is exceptional, especially Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas as some sort of Greek chorus, walking us through the history of money. And the screenplay is so fleet, so entertaining that you just barrel past the bad parts. The absurdly funny episodes hold a mirror to the absurdity of it all, and the last scene really got me. It’s a gimmick, but a great one. And you see why Streep was needed in this movie. It’s an iconic moment. It deserves an iconic actress, and no other name comes close.

***

The Orizzonti section made space for two high-profile films with gay themes. Moffie (Afrikaans, English) is superbly directed by Oliver Hermanus. It grips you like an ice-cold vise, but the narrative is overfamiliar: the vicious training montages of Full Metal Jacket crossed with your average coming-out drama. There are a few surprises (especially in the excellent final stretch), but not enough to overcome the tedium. I was more taken by Rialto, by Peter Mackie Burns, which centres on a middle-aged Irishman named Colm, with a wife and two teenage children. His father died recently. “I haven’t been myself since,” he says. And this makes him strike up a friendship (with benefits) with a young hustler named Jay. The film doesn’t answer what Colm finds in Jay that his wife cannot provide, for this doesn’t seem to be just about sex. But as David Leavitt wrote in The Lost Language of Cranes, another story about a middle-aged man finding himself attracted to the same gender, sometimes “the heartstrings yearn to be plucked at any cost, the soul tires of contentment, the body craves any kind of change, even decimation, even death.”

***

Chinese director Yonfan returned after a ten-year absence with his first animated film, No. 7 Cherry Lane (Mandarin, Cantonese, French), an erotic drama set in 1960s Hong Kong. Yes, an animated erotic drama. Yonfan is gay, and rarely has a film been so in thrall of the male body. Translation: There’s a scene where an already aroused man gets turned on further by a cat licking his nipples. (There’s full-frontal female nudity, too.) Translation: This is easily one of the more bizarre, original, fascinating films at the festival — and one that asks that you keep your eyes peeled. A cat with blue and yellow eyes, whose owner wears blue and yellow rings? Even if you don’t relate to the politics in this story of a Hong Kong University undergraduate caught up in the turbulent events of 1967, the devil is in the trance-like pace and the stunning, hand-drawn detailing.

***

You’ll probably have to know a little more about the politics surrounding The Mafia is No Longer What It Used to Be (Italian, Sicilian dialect), Franco Maresco’s follow-up to Belluscone: A Sicilian Story. The documentary portrays the struggle between old-timers nostalgic about the Mafia and present-day Italians glad to be rid of it. What helps is a truckload of humour. Even amidst the undeniable sadness of what’s being told, the satire brings about belly laughs. So, is this a sobering snapshot of an era or just all-out entertainment? The best of both worlds, I suppose. A Herdade (The Domain; Portuguese), by Tiago Guedes, is a sprawling family saga that plays out over changing times, but the film takes itself too seriously and is too glacially paced for the soapy material at hand. Watch Giant, from 1956, where Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean show how this kind of intergenerational tale should really be told, with star power and sass and not a moment’s dullness.

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