We have a lot planned for the fall film festival season—including multiple dispatches from the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. But first, a modest precursor spotlighting five noteworthy titles that screened during the season’s initial Big Film Fest. Our sampling of the 2017 Venice International Film Festival (which wrapped yesterday) includes the latest from documentary godhead Frederick Wiseman; Brooklyn-based indie filmmaker Nathan Silver; the Sensory Ethnography Lab duo Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel; a debut film from Italian composer Giorgio Ferrero; and the winner of the Grand Prix award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Frederick Wiseman is one of a handful of contemporary filmmakers who can make duration a virtue: Ex Libris uses its staggering, 197-minute runtime to thoroughly examine the institution of the New York Public Library. Going back to the 1960s, Wiseman has proven a master of vivisecting spaces and conceptions of spaces with nonlinear filmic language; there’s a familiarity to the overall structure of Ex Libris, but its various points of focus are always arrived at in unexpected ways. What makes this film standout in Wiseman’s catalogue is the precision of its ocular considerations: The sounds of crying babies bombard unsuspecting readers, and sporadic phone notifications upset otherwise quiescent computer labs. To Wiseman, this density of sound represents a fascinating signifier of a time-honored landmark’s adaptation to modern life. Patrick Devitt
With Caniba, the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Laboratory duo Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor turn their typically assured lens on Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man who was deported from Paris in 1981 for murdering and cannibalizing a Dutch student. In what amounts to a catalogue of horrific deviancy, Caniba documents, in explicit detail, Sagawa’s past attempts to capitalize on his infamy (using gruesome manga illustrations of his crimes and forays into pornography, among other exploits), as well as his fraught relationship with his brother and caretaker. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s approach certainly fulfills the “sensory ethnography” requirement of the film (it is, indeed, a brand of formalism that is attentive to the visceral impact of its images). But in its genuinely difficult, provocative manner, Caniba also embodies the limits of such an approach. The filmmakers’ interest in Sagawa as an individual feels limited to larger (read: ethnographic) implications, despite the inherent ethical queasiness of providing someone like Sagawa another opportunity to make himself known. Ultimately, what registers is senseless, morbid fascination. When it comes to documentary filmmaking, there can be a certain integrity to staring horror squarely in the eye; in this case, though, the directors would have done better to just look away. Lawrence Garcia
Gina (Lindsay Burdge), a flight attendant, hooks up with Jérôme (Damien Bonnard), a mustachioed bartender at a Parisian strip-club, after her husband commits suicide (a scene that’s drolly narrated by Anjelica Huston) in Nathan Silver’s Thi
There’s scarcely been a better time for a film like BPM (Beats Per Minute), with its genuine and rare sense of empathy, and its yearning spirit of liberation from the influence of oppressive forces. Unfortunately, Robin Campillo’s third feature is bogged down by the shortcomings of its filmmaking. BPM follows the heroic work of AIDS activists Act Up Paris around the beginning of the 1990s, focusing on their schedule of protests and routine planning sessions. Campillo does a marvelous job with his film’s procedural elements in the early going, but he doesn’t build anything out of the film’s set-up, relying merely on the repetitions of plot to communicate a sense of emphatic sociopolitical consciousness. And when Campillo does eventually attempt to branch out and tell the stories of the individuals involved with this movement, he still focuses predominantly on their devotion to their work, inside and out of Act Up, disallowing them any more depth than their political purpose. PD
Beautiful Things deals with some explicitly not beautiful things: oil drilling, cargo hauling, self-described “torture” (scientific experimentation), and trash burning. All these odd occupations are tied together by a visual motif: they take place in environments stripped bare aside from an occasional large piece of machinery operating in the vicinity. First-time director Giorgio Ferrero goes for a rigidly formalist approach that mirrors other sensory-focused films like Dead Slow Ahead, with scene after scene of oppressively barren landscapes and an intensely overwhelming soundtrack that adds to a feeling of utter helplessness. That effect has some impact during this film’s first section, which depicts the slow, hypnotic movement of an oil rig against the static scenery that surrounds it. But Ferrero essentially just repeats that juxtapositional tactic for the remaining three sections of Beautiful Things. The director’s goal is an interesting one: take generally undesirable (and, to be frank, rather boring) work that the world needs and give it an aestheticized visual representation. But that representation tends to be a pretty one-note strangeness, which often just ends up being something to ogle at. Paul Attard