Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Culture of Dust at Palazzo Fortuny - Catalan Photographer Joan Fontcuberta Transforms the Decaying Images of Italian Prince Francesco Chigi into a Cosmic Trip

Photographers photographing the photographer Joan Foncuberta at Palazzo Fortuny

(Venice, Italy) "What is the most decayed photographic material you have?" asked Joan Fontcuberta (Barcelona, 1955) after he was invited to be an artist in residency at the Central Institute for Cataloging and Documentation (ICCD) in Rome. ("Joan" is the male name "John" in the Catalan language.)

Since the late 19th century, the ICCD institute has been the National Photographic Cabinet that protects and catalogues the cultural heritage of Italy -- the ICCD is part of the Italian Minister of Culture.

So, as preservationists, it created a bit of embarrassment for the ICCD to confess that it did, indeed, have photographic materials that were in poor condition. But they had a good reason.

Trauma by Joan Fontcuberta - photo of image: Cat Bauer

What the ICCD had were extremely damaged glass negatives from the Fondo Chigi taken by Prince Francesco Chigi Albani della Rovere (1881, Rome - 1953, Rome), a member of one of the most powerful Italian families in history. The illustrious Chigi Family from Sienna, ennobled in 1377,  is rich with prominent members, from bankers to cardinals -- Fabio Chigi become Pope Alexander VII in 1655.

Even though Prince Francesco Chigi came from a wealthy family whose tradition was banking, he was a high school dropout. The youngest of five siblings, he was passionate about nature and the wildlife that populated his Roman villa, birds in particular. 

Francesco was also passionate about the new medium of photography. How could he capture nature?  How could he freeze the vibrant reality he saw twirling around him into photos?

He had the resources to invest in the costly equipment he needed to experiment. He documented his family life and residences, his countryside, his gardens, and his forests, as well as his travels.

Trauma by Joan Fontcuberta - photo of image: Cat Bauer

Years after Franceso’s death, in 1970, his son, Mario Chigi, donated his father’s photographic heritage to the National Photographic Cabinet. The collection contained about 6,000 units, mostly negatives on glass, of landscapes and panoramas, family portraits, mountains and lakes, villas and travels.

And birds. Lots of birds.

After being neglected and stored in unsuitable locations, much of the aging collection was damaged.

By the time Joan Fontcuberta came on the scene, many of the negatives were almost unrecognizable. This suited him perfectly. "This work is about infection," said Fontcuberta. Damaged by bacteria and other elements over the decades, the photographs were aging and returning to dust. Like human beings.

Fontcuberta transformed 12 of the "suffering photographs" into new works of art, all entitled "Trauma." Displayed in light boxes inside the dark, vast ground floor of Palazzo Fortuny are riveting images, part Chigi, part Fontcuberta, that seem to come from the cosmos.

Joan Fontcuberta. Cultura di polvere at Palazzo Fortuny - Photo: Cat Bauer

In the catalogue, David Campany explains:
The promise of photography, born at the onset of a rapidly changing modern world, was immortality in the form of the frozen image that would last forever and lend itself to the mastery of history and of progress.

But it was a promise that could not be kept.

It is a cruel if poetic irony that photography, a medium tasked so often with the fixing of appearances and the preservation of history, should turn out to be so materially susceptible.

And, it is perhaps more ironic still that this medium which finds the visual effects of time -- decay, deterioration, mold, putrescence, entropy -- to be so photogenic, should inevitably itself succumb to these effects.

If photographs preserve anything of what they represent, it is only for a short time, and only if the photographs themselves are preserved.

Photography seemed at first impervious and absolute, but it turned out to be human after all: bold, vivacious and unmarked for a while, but eventually frail, decrepit and headed for the grave.

Prince Francesco Chigi original slide - Photo: Cat Bauer

Joan Fontcuberta has taken Francesco Chigi's outcast and unrecoupable photographs and resurrected them from the dust, thrusting them back into the cosmos. He has transformed them into new life forms. It's like he has saved their souls.

Be sure to wander into the back room to read the catalogue and gaze at some of the original slides that have been eaten by time.

Joan Fontcuberta. Cultura di polvere, curated by Francesca Fabiani, has been extended until March 25, Venice's birthday, so you have more time to see the other-worldly images for yourself. Go to Palazzo Fortuny for more information. 

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Monday, January 1, 2024

Comfort & Joy from the Powerful Lion of Venice - Here’s to a Happy, Healthy, Prosperous New Year - 2024

Winged Lion of Venice in Piazza San Marco - Photo: Cat Bauer
(Venice, Italy) The mysterious winged Lion of Venice on the top of the column next to Palazzo Ducale in Piazza San Marco is a symbol of Venice's patron saint, Mark the Evangelist. It a testament to the strength of Venice's ability to adapt and survive.

The Lion of Venice came to the Venetian Republic from the world of Byzantium in the 12th century. But the core of the ancient bronze sculpture is much older, dating back to around 300 BC, before Christianity even existed. In the 1980s, restorers decided most of its body is about 2,300 years old. Its origins are cloaked in mystery.

It is believed by some that the Lion of Venice started life as a mythical griffin, a legendary creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle, combining the king of the beasts and the king of the birds into one powerful image. It was probably a monument to the god Santa(s), or Sandon, worshiped in the city of Tarsus, which was in the province of Cilicia, in what is now Turkey, where Mark Antony and Cleopatra first met, and where Saint Paul was born. The god Sandon was so powerful that he was worshiped from the 18th century BC to the first century AD.

During the Roman Empire Tarsus was a "luxurious port city of great wealth and opulence" which became part of the Byzantine Empire until it fell. Luckily someone snatched the lion and brought it to Venice sometime in the 12th century, saving it from the clutches of the Ottoman Empire -- the precise history is as foggy as the mist on a Venetian day in winter.

Then Napoleon came along and grabbed the Lion of Venice, using it to decorate the top of the Fontaine des Invalides in Paris. When the Austrians gained dominion over Venice, they and some influential Venetians brought the lion back home to the lagoon. The lion was smashed and damaged both on its way to Paris, and on its way back to Venice. After being repaired by Barolomeo Ferrari, it was perched back on its column on April 13, 1816.

The Lion of St Mark on top of a column in the Piazzetta in Venice, seen from the Doges Palace
Author: Peter J.StB.Green
I finally found a scholar who sums up perfectly the feeling I am trying to capture about the Lion of Venice. Thank you Garry Wills! Wills says it started life not as a griffin, but as a winged lion with horns. Here is an excerpt:

"The Lions of Venice"
GARRY WILLS
...Seen up close, its face looks partly simian, partly devilish, partly
human - an effect created in part by the placement of its ears on the sides
of its head, not on top. Was it intended by its creators to be a lion?
Restorers at work on it in the 1980s concluded that it was. Studying many
Near Eastern parallels, they found the closest to be the winged and horned
lions that carry a standing statue of Sandon, the tutelary god of Tarsus in
Cilicia. When that region became Christian, the lion was shorn of its horns
and wings, which removed its pagan onus. It must, even in this early period,
have acquired some sacred meaning, since ancient bronze statues of this size
were almost always melted down for the reuse of their metal....
...The lion has suffered through all the city's vicissitudes over eight centuries of fame and shame, of downfall and recovery. Its silhouette, at dawn or dusk, in mist or glare, gives Venice comfort. Its eerie grin hides a thousand secrets, carried here from its bizarre beginnings and kept faithfully above the city whose identity it guards.
No matter what challenges the New Year will bring, and it appears there are many looming on the horizon, Venice remains under the powerful protection of the mysterious ancient Lion of Venice.

Happy New Year from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Christmas in Venice 2023 - Golden Vespers in Saint Mark's Basilica

Basilica di San Marco, Venice - Photo: Cat Bauer

(Venice, Italy) If you want to witness the golden spirit of Venice, attend Vespers on Christmas Day inside Saint Mark's Basilica. Vespers is Evening Prayer, and takes place as dusk begins to fall. On a high holy day like Christmas, the Secondi Vespri is pure white magic.

"Vespers" means "evening," which became "evensong" in English. Gold is everywhere, glistening in the biblical stories told by the mosaics scrolled across the walls and ceilings of the Basilica. At the center is the Pala D'Oro, the shimmering panel of gold crafted in ancient Byzantium that frames the high altar. The Pala D'Oro feels like a direct line from Earth to the Heavens.

The Pala D'Oro inside St. Mark's Basilica - Photo: Cat Bauer

The Patriarch of Venice, Francesco Moraglia, leads the proceedings, draped in gold, surrounded by a small tribe of golden-cloaked priests. Incense wafts through the air, swinging, swinging, from a golden censer on a chain. Placed on the center of the altar is an elaborate golden monstrance, a vessel that holds the Eucharist, with beams that radiate like rays of the sun.

The prayers are sung by the angelic voices of the choir, the Cappella Marciana, accompanied by the powerful tones of the organ. The scene is intoxicating. Gazing at the mosaics… breathing the incense… listening to the hymns… you are transported to an ethereal realm of existence. 

And then, as the Vespers come to a close, the Patriarch lifts the golden monstrance above his head and beams its heavenly energy left, right and center directly at the congregation and you are blasted with a stream of Good, Good, Good Vibrations.

Madonna Nicopeia - Photo: Cat Bauer

The coda of the evening is the most beautiful. The Patriarch dons his pointy golden headgear and grips a golden staff. The priests descend from the altar and proceed down the center of the Basilica, a cloud of incense in their wake. As he passes, the Patriarch blesses the congregation.

Then congregation joins in behind the procession. The choir in the balcony chants the same hymn over and over as the group makes it way over to the Madonna Nicopeia, the icon said to have been painted by Saint Luke himself, which I have written about many times before.

The Patriarch takes off his golden headgear, and talks to the Madonna Nicopeia using the familiar "tu" form of address. In addition to praying for the world in general, he asks her for personal blessings for Venice. To keep us safe. And it feels like she is actually listening.

Christmas in Piazza San Marco, Venice - Photo: Cat Bauer

There are 12 Days of Christmas that lead up to Epiphany on January 6th and the arrival of the Three Wise Men, the day when the Magi visit the Christ child. So, we are nestled in the warmth of the holiday season. While the rest world seems to be in turmoil this Christmas, inside Venice, all is calm. All is bright. May the golden energy of the Pala D'Oro reach everyone on Earth.

Buon Natale from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Monday, December 18, 2023

Lessons From the Frontline Yet to Learn: David "Chim" Seymour - The World & Venice 1936-56 at Palazzo Grimani

Venice, Italy, 1950 © David Seymour/Magnum Photos

(Venice, Italy) The exhibition, David "Chim" Seymour - The World and Venice 1936-56, at Palazzo Grimani is poignant and haunting, especially with two major 2023 wars currently playing in the world's background.

Chim was one of the co-founders of Magnum Photos, the most respected international photographic cooperative in the world, founded back in 1947. For over 75 years, its photographers have documented profound historical events that have upended the earth.

The Chim exhibition is a collaboration between Palazzo Grimani and Suazes, an Italian cultural organization. Both institutions also co-presented the excellent Inge Morath exhibition at Palazzo Grimani in January, 2023, which was attended by more than 30,000 people.

As I wandered from room to room and gazed at the photos, the same thought played on a loop inside my mind: "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it." From the Spanish Civil War, to post-World War II Europe, Germany, and beyond, after viewing the horrors imprinted on the faces of innocent children and civilians photographed by Chim, it seemed the only lessons human beings have learned over the decades is how to build more sophisticated weapons. So many of the same old battles are being fought between so many of the same old powers, which occasionally switch sides.

David "Chim" Seymour, Paris, 1956 by Elliott Erwitt
Photo of image: Cat Bauer

David "Chim" Seymour was born David Szymin in Warsaw, Poland on November 20, 1911. His family were distinguished publishers who produced works in Yiddish and Hebrew. At the outbreak of the First World War, his family moved to Russia, and then returned to Warsaw in 1919.

Chim (easier to pronounce than "Szymin" and not sounding as Jewish) left Poland in 1932 to study graphic arts and printing in Leipzig until things got too dicey for Jews. He went to Paris where there was an established Jewish community, and studied chemistry and physics at the Sorbonne.

Chim needed to work, and being a photo-journalist was easier than writing articles in a foreign language -- he was an intellectual who knew his way around photography.

In 1934, through Maria Eisner and the new photo agency Alliance, Chim met fellow photographers Robert Capa, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Robert Capa was born Endre Erno Friedmann, a Hungarian Jew who would go on to be considered one of  the greatest combat and adventure photographers in history. Henri Cartier-Bresson came from a wealthy Catholic family, starting and ending his career as an artist whose passion was drawing and painting, and who used his Leica camera to capture intimate moments of ordinary people, pioneering street photography.

Though there were other founders, this trio, along with George Rodger, would become the core of Magnum Photos. Often set against the backdrop of extreme suffering, and at personal risk, their photographs captured the humanist spirit.
"Chim picked up his camera the way a doctor takes his stethoscope out of his bag, applying his diagnosis to the condition of the heart: his own was vulnerable."
                                                                                -- Henri Cartier-Bresson


Left: David "Chim" Seymour greeting Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paris, 1938
Right: David "Chim" Seymour and Robert Capa, Paris, 1952
Photo: Cat Bauer

Curated by Marco Minuz, "Chim" is divided into nine categories:

1. Celebrity - The exhibit kicks off on a light note before delving into the darkness of war. Chim shot movie stars working on Cinecittà film sets in Rome, like Sofia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, Gina Lollobrigida and Ingrid Bergman, as well as many other celebrities.

2. France, The Popular Front - 1936-39 - Workers' strikes, growing international tensions following the rise of Hitler and Nazi-fascism in Europe -- Chim documented it all.

3. Venice - 1950
- In the early 1950s Chim spent much of his time in Italy. During a stay in Venice, he captured the charms of the lagoon city, including Peggy Guggenheim and her dogs.

4. The Spanish Civil War - 1936-39
- Chim spent 30 months in Spain reporting on a war that grew into a conflict on an international scale. Franco's forces were supported by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, while the Republicans were supported by the Soviet Union and the International Brigades. Chim's lens focused on the plight of civilians behind the front line.

Spanish Civil War, Extremadura, by David "Chim" Seymour
Spain 1936
Photo of image: Cat Bauer

5. Germany Post-World War II - In 1947, Chim headed back to Europe after the end of WWII and photographed scenes like the ruins of the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag, and Dachau concentration camp, and the German people's return to normality.

6. Europe After the Second World War
- When Magnum Photos was created in 1947, the founders decided to "share out the world." Chim chose to focus on Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, documenting postwar Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. In the 1950s, he traveled around France, Italy, Greece, and Israel.

7. War Children - In 1948, Chim was commissioned by UNICEF to document the living conditions of children in Europe three years after the end of World War II. For six months he traveled from Austria and Greece to Italy, Poland and Hungary, taking thousands of photos of children who had suffered severe physical and mental trauma, refugees, survivors of concentration camps, and other hellscapes. In some of the most dramatic images of the exhibition, he recorded the damage of war inflicted on an entire generation of innocents.

8. Egypt, Suez Canal - 1956 - On July 26, 1956, Egyptian President Nasser announced the Suez Canal had been nationalized. Three months later, on October 29, 1956, Israel invaded Sinai and the Gaza Strip with the support of France and Britain, trying to regain the Suez Canal. Chim traveled to Egypt to report on the crisis for Newsweek. He arrived in Port Said on November 7, 1956, by which time the hostilities had ceased. Together with other journalists, he documented the destruction and chaos in the city. These were the last photos he would take before losing his life three days later.

9. Israel - 1951-55 - From 1951, Chim traveled to the new State of Israel every year to document the gradual evolution of the young nation, immortalizing settlers, life on the kibbutzim, rituals and other customs and traditions. He also witnessed the industrial growth, the development of water networks and the expansion of mines and oil pipelines.

"Chim was a deeply cultured, well-read, highly intelligent, and very private person. The emotions that were bottled up in him poured out in this images of the Spanish Civil War: war-ravaged children; the living rituals of religion,; and the establishment of Israel."
                                                                            --Cornell Capa

On November 10, 1956, Chim and Paris Match photographer Jean Roy traveled 50 miles south to photograph a prisoner exchange at Al Qantara, the last post before Egyptian lines. For unknown reasons, they did not stop when Egyptian soldiers summoned them, and continued driving at full speed. As their jeep crossed the Anglo-French lines and headed toward the Egyptian lines, the two reporters were shot dead by Egyptian machine gun fire. Chim died 10 days before his 45th birthday.

David "Chim" Seymour lost his life documenting the realities of human existence on the frontlines so we can witness the repercussions of war and strife. The excellent David "Chim" Seymour Il Mondo e Venezia 1936-56 is at Palazzo Grimani until March 17, 2024.

I have written about Palazzo Grimani in English before, which might provide some interesting background, since the Region of the Veneto Minister of Culture website is (still) in Italian.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Friday, September 29, 2023

Italico Brass, the Painter of Venice

Caffè Florian (detail) by Italico Brass (1912)

(Venice, Italy) Italico Brass is the most delightful painter of Venice that you probably have never heard of. That's all about to change thanks to a gem of an exhibition in Palazzo Loredan in Campo Santo Stefano entitled Italico Brass, Il Pittore di Venezia.

The last time Italico Brass had his own show was back in 1948 at the Venice Art Biennale, the first Biennale after the fall of the Fascist regime.

Instead of painting the usual Venetian monuments, Brass captured the everyday lives and times of the inhabitants of Venice, the town that he had adopted as his home. Festivals and regattas. Votive bridges and holy days. The campi of Venice in sunshine and in snow. From gondoliers to lace-makers, cafés in Piazza San Marco to high-society on the Lido, Brass reminds us of how many precious elements of life in Venice once existed, some of which still exist to this day.

Due buranelle (Two women of Burano) by Italico Brass (c. 1904)

Born on December 12, 1870 in the Northern Italian town of Gorizia when it was under Austrian domination, Brass wanted to be an artist from a young age. Family lore says that his father took him to the ancient Gorizia Castle and pointed far off in the distance, telling him stories about Venice, a city that became a fixation to the budding painter.

Brass studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Munich after proving his talent at age 16 by painting a portrait of his father. He then lived in Paris and frequented Impressionist and Post-Impressionist circles, where numerous exhibitions of his work were held. He also found success in various European cities and the Americas. 

Italico Brass self-portrait (1928) inside Palazzo Loredan

Brass arrived from Paris to the lagoon in 1895 with his new wife, Lina Rebecca Vidgoff, living first in Chioggia and then in Venice. He was present at the very first Venice Art Biennale in 1895, and in almost every edition until the year of his death in August 1943.

After that, he fell into oblivion except for one show in his home town of Gorizia in 1991.

Now, 80 years after Brass's death, Venice is launching her adopted son -- who had been called "The Painter of Venice" by critics since the early 20th century -- back into the spotlight.

Scuola di merletti (School of Lace) by Italico Brass

What is fascinating about the exhibition is that Brass has captured the stories we hear about Venice at the turn of the 20th century, and brought them to life. Instead of reading about the revival of lace-making on the island of Burano thanks to the efforts of Countess Andriana Marcello, Brass was actually there on Burano in 1904. He spent the summer with fellow artists Pieretto Bianco and Umberto Veruda, who was a guest of the author Italo Svevo. Thanks to his brush we can witness the women at work, making lace.

Conversazione sulla spiaggia (Conversation on the beach) by Italico Brass

There is an enchanting series of paintings of the Lido that Brass painted during the first half of the 20th century as it developed into a lively seaside resort. He captures wealthy visitors lounging on its shores as well as everyday Venetians frolicking in the sea, scenes that still exist to this very day (with far less clothing) -- if you know where to look.

Pedicure, manicure, haircut right on the beach

One of my favorite works was a small painting of the instantly recognizable interior of Locanda Montin over in Dorsoduro.

Sotto la pergola (Under the Pergola) by Italico Brass (c.1920)

Next to the painting was a note that said:
This is the pergola in the garden of the Locanda Montin frequented by Brass almost every day: here he met both D'Annunzio and Ezra Pound.
Can you imagine such a trio at lunch?! Italico Brass lived in the house next to the Church of San Trovaso in Dorsoduro, not far from Pound and D'Annunzio.

The notes from the exhibition state that "Brass did not belong to any school, current or other but, as the critics say, 'belonged to himself.' With these characteristics of originality and uniqueness, Italico Brass practically spanned the first half of the century, devoting himself mainly, but not exclusively, to portraying Venice and its world in new and, above all, modern terms."

Italico Brass died suddenly in Venice on August 16, 1943, the day of the Feast of San Rocco.

There are over 100 works on display inside Palazzo Loredan that whisk you back to Venice a century ago before the tourist invasion. After I left the exhibition, I stopped over in Campo San Maurizio to take a photo of the same image that Italico Brass painted in 1910.

El Campaniel, (bell tower) Campo San Maurizio
left: 1910 oil on canvas by Italico Brass - right: 2023 iPad photo by Cat Bauer

Italico Brass, The Painter of Venice is presented by the Istituto Venetio di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti and Lineadacqua, who also has published a beautiful accompanying catalogue -- in Italian, but with many gorgeous images that need no words to understand. There does seem to be a short guide in English that I haven’t seen. The main partner is Majer, who you can support by enjoying their delicious pastries and other goodies, along with the stalwart The Merchant of Venice with their exotic fragrances and art of perfumery.

Italico Brass, Il Pittore di Venezia curated by Giandomeico Romanelli and Pascaline Vatin runs from September 30 to December 22, 2023, and is a MUST SEE for anyone who truly loves Venice. The two curators also made a short film that gives an entertaining history in Italian with English subtitles. Go to the Institute of Science, Letters and Arts for more information.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Monday, September 18, 2023

Recap of the 80th Venice Film Festival 2023 -- The Good, the Bad & the Excellent

Now that's a car! Sleek Italian Police Lamborghini outside the red carpet
during the Venice Film Festival award ceremony
A gift from Lamborghini so the Polizia can transport human organs -- fast
The cooler for the organs is under the hood

(Venice, Italy) This year, the dual Writers Guild and SAG-AFTRA actor strikes put a necessary damper on the excitement of the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival. The unfair practices of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), and the danger that artificial intelligence (AI) poses not just for Hollywood, but for all creative industries, was thrust into the spotlight.

Peter Sarsgaard summed it up when he accepted the award for Best Actor for his work in the film, Memory: "I think we could all really agree that an actor is a person and that a writer is a person. But it seems we can't. And that's terrifying because this work we do is about connection. And without that, this animated space between us, this sacrament, this holy experience of being human, will be handed over to the machines and the eight billionaires that own them."

The Red Carpet behind the scenes - Photo: Cat Bauer

I had the chance to see 20 films this year, along with a bunch of Virtual Reality and other Immersive projects. Here is my annual quick recap of the films I managed to see, with letter grades and links to reviews that I agree with the most.

1. Comandante

Instead of Luca Guadagnino’s Hollywood dazzler Challengers starring Zendaya kicking off the Venice Film Festival, which was pulled by MGM/Amazon due to the strike, the opening film was Edoardo De Angelis’ Italian drama, Comandante. Set on an Italian submarine during World War II, it's based on the true story of Salvatore Todaro, played by Italian powerhouse Pierfrancesco Favino.

Todaro was born in Sicily, but grew up in Chioggia in Venice. As commander of the Italian Royal Naval submarine, Comandante Cappellini, Todaro blew up a Belgium ship carrying British war supplies and then, astonishingly, rescued the Belgium seamen.

I really enjoyed the film, but I think it's because I live in Italy -- I'm not sure it will translate well into the English-speaking world. There were lots of Venetian expressions, as well as colloquialisms from the rest of Italy -- in fact, Todaro writes to his wife about how the sailors on the sub are united even though they speak different dialects and come from different Italian regions -- sort of like men from Alabama bonding with men from California.

I ran into Pierfrancesco Favino at the Excelsior Hotel on the Lido. I told him: "I'm an American who's lived here since 1998. I loved your performance and the film. I was rooting for the fascists!"

Pierfrancesco Favino
Photo: Cat Bauer

Here's a review from Catherine Bray at the Guardian that I agree with:
Comandante review – fun, if you ignore the voice in your head telling you it’s wrong

...Surely Italy is that nice place with the gnocchi and olive oil? Hard to imagine they were … fascists?

...Todaro is presented as a man so noble he almost seems to misunderstand how war is supposed to work. And perhaps he really was: rebuking a German officer who finds Todaro’s “hate the game, not the player” policy ludicrous, the man reportedly said: “I’m Italian, I have 2,000 years of civilisation behind me.”

I don't know if Comandante will make it to US screens, but it's worth seeing, especially if you're of Italian heritage. Grade: B+

2. Dogman

Many critics lambasted Luc Besson's Dogman, which, to me, seemed like some kind of Me Too pile on to punish the French director, who has been cleared of all rape allegations against him. I liked the weird film starring Caleb Landry Jones about a cross-dressing loner in a wheelchair bruised by life and the many dogs that protect him.

Damon Wise from Deadline liked it, too:

Caleb Landry Jones Blows The Roof Off Luc Besson’s Boisterously Insane Action Thriller

Luc Besson’s Dogman is a superhero movie in search of a comic book, which makes a refreshing change amid the summer’s raft of DC disappointments. It skews a little close to Todd Phillips’ Golden Lion winner Joker in terms of weirdness and (especially) wardrobe, but it also offers the perfect showcase for star Caleb Landry Jones, who imbues a boisterously insane action thriller with heart and soul in what must surely be a career-high performance.

Set in New Jersey, the film is in English, not French, and, as noted, is in a similar key to Joker. It's scheduled to be released in French cinemas on September 27 and October 5 in Italy, but I don't know about the States. See it if you can. Grade: B+

3. Ferrari


Michael Mann's Ferrari signed the interim SAG-AFTRA agreement, which allowed star Adam Driver to appear on the red carpet in Venice to promote the film. It was a very effective way to call attention to the purpose of the strike.

To support the actors, indie productions like Ferrari and Dogman have agreed to all the terms the SAG-AFTRA union is asking for. By having the movie star wattage of Adam Driver here in person, it made an impressive impact -- and illustrates that producers can agree to the demands of the union if they want to.

That said, though some critics loved it, to me, Ferrari was not Mann's strongest film.

Siddhant Adlakha at Mashable says:

Michael Mann returns with a scattered but impactful biopic

...Where Mann's masterpieces like Heat feature a riveting sense of atmosphere — there's always a thickness in the air, born of his use of light, focus, and the interplay of characters and their environments — Ferrari is more of a concert of still images that feel mildly pleasurable to look at in isolation. However, while the simplicity of these images yields a film that is, for the most part, lukewarm, they are also complimented by a complex aesthetic flourish that rears its head from time to time as a reminder of what the movie is truly about at its core...

Ferrari is scheduled to be released in the United States on Christmas, December 25, 2023. I wouldn't give up Christmas dinner to see it, but maybe catch it before the New Year. Grade: B-

4. Hollywoodgate

I agree most with Daniel Fienberg at the Hollywood Reporter.

Chronicle of the Taliban’s Return to Power Fascinates and Frustrates

Ibrahim Nash'at's documentary follows two Taliban officials through the first year after the American withdrawal from Kabul.

Maybe Nash’at hoped to get something more decisive, more instantly cautionary, but I suspect Hollywoodland (sic - should be Hollywoodgate) will gain potency in the years to come. The Taliban wanted a 90-minute commercial and Nash’at wanted 90 minutes of truth, and what they both got was a portrait of the complicated cost of access — more vital in its universal applicability to documentary filmmaking than its immediacy as a documentary.

I couldn't find a release date for the U.S. Stream it if it pops up in the States. Grade: C

5. Finalmente l'alba (Finally Dawn)

I enjoyed this strange film by Italian writer-director Saverio Constanzo in both Italian and English set on one long day and night in Rome in the 1950s at the Cinecittà film studio when an innocent teenage girl who wants to be an extra instead becomes a kind of star. I especially liked Willem Dafoe as a charming art dealer who does a lot of translating between the characters. He can really speak Italian -- he's married to Italian actress Giada Colagrande, and they live in Rome, LA, and NYC.

From Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian:

Finally Dawn review – Lily James shines in exuberant romantic melodrama

James is the Liz Taylor-ish diva claiming a young star-struck girl as her new best friend in Saverio Constanzo’s tale set in 1950s Rome

It is the tale of an unconventionally beautiful duckling who becomes more of a swan than the glamorous people she idolises; her dreams come true – or sort of true – in 1950s Rome in the heyday of the giant Cinecittà film studio. There are seductive performances from Lily James as the Liz Taylor-ish American movie diva, Willem Dafoe as her elegant, kindly confidant, Rachel Sennott as the disaffected up-and-coming actor who wants to unseat James’s star, and a lovely turn from relative newcomer Rebecca Antonaci as the bewildered and unlikely heroine.

I can't find a release date yet, but I'm sure it will at least stream eventually. Worth watching. Grade: B

Emma Stone & Ramy Youssef in Poor Things
6. Poor Things

As I wrote previously, I loved Poor Things, along with nearly every critic. The film delivers its message of female empowerment with sheer joy, wit and creativity. I am thrilled that it won the Golden Lion, the top award of the Venice Film Festival (and that Willem Dafoe stars in this one, too). 

Go out and see it in the theater when it opens on December 8, 2023 in the US, and on January 12, 2024 in the UK. It's better than Barbie. Grade: A+

"Poor Things" Is a Wacky, Wonderful Work of Genius with a Fearless Performance by Emma Stone - Venice Film Festival 2023

7. The Palace

Roman Polanski's The Palace was despised by most critics, and in this case I think it has nothing to do with the Me Too movement. The movie is just bad.

Owen Gleiberman from Variety:

Roman Polanski’s New Year’s Eve Hotel Comedy About a Bunch of Wealthy Idiots Is a Laughless Debacle

Polanski and comedy have never jelled, and at 90 he works with a timing that's decades out of date.

Nothing in the movie is funny. Not the constant scrambling of the hotel manager, Mr. Kompf (Oliver Masucci), to placate the overgrown babies who are his guests. Not John Cleese overplaying the oil-tycoon drawl and then going the way of “Weekend at Bernie’s” (apologies for the spoiler — I hope I haven’t ruined the movie for you). Not the live penguin who gets shipped to the hotel and keeps wandering around...

The Palace is set to be released on September 28 in Italy, but does not have a distributor in the US, UK, or France, so you probably won't be able to see it. Grade: D

8. Maestro

Because of the strike, Bradley Cooper was not in Venice to support Maestro, the film that he both starred in and directed, which focuses on the marriage of the bi-sexual Leonard Bernstein. Cooper had the full support of the real-life Bernstein family, with the composer's three children here at the world premiere.

From Fionnuala Halligan in Screen Daily:

Director/star Bradley Cooper conducts an impressively-mounted, if uneven, portrait of composer Leonard Bernstein

...Which is to say that Maestro plays like a more modern work: a staccato piece. The black-and-white section at the start is the most joyous, carefree and flowing; central parts, where the marriage starts to fracture despite Felicia being happy to entertain her husband’s lovers, are loud, veering towards abrasive; the final third, with depression and illness, feels like a slow, painful thud to fade...

Maestro is scheduled for limited theatrical release in the U.S. on November 22, 2023, before streaming on Netflix on December 20, 2023. It might make a good night out if you're in NYC, but there is a Netflixy feel about it, so it's OK to stream. Grade: B+

9. La Bête (The Beast)

Due to my own stupidity, I missed the first half hour of
La Bête, but I think it worked out OK because it is a non-linear film about past, present, and future lives, jumping through time, and switching from French to British and American English. Its running time is two hours and 26 minutes, so I caught most of it.

From Jordan Mintzer at The Hollywood Reporter:

Lea Seydoux and George MacKay in Bertrand Bonello’s Creepy, Conceptual Time-Tripping Saga

The French director adapts a Henry James novella, which he transforms into a romantic thriller set during three different epochs.

...Set simultaneously in 2044, 2014 and in the belle-époque Paris of 1910, when the Seine overflowed and plunged parts of the city underwater, The Beast is at once an anxiety-ridden romantic thriller and a conceptual cri de coeur about the possible end of humanity. It features incredibly lifelike robots, exposed green screens, freaky ceramic dolls, and scenes of Seydoux doing futuristic hot yoga and dancing to trap while high on molly...

The Beast is set to be released in France on January 28, 2024. Will it be released in the U.S.? If so, it's worth streaming. Grade: B

10. The Killer

I think Michael Fassgender is terrific, so I was looking forward to The Killer, directed by David Fincher. It's slow-moving uber-violent Netflix about an uber-professional assassin with a narrative that Fassbender tells in a monotone voice-over.

From Owen Gleiberman at Variety:

David Fincher’s Hitman Thriller Is a Portrait of a Coldly Methodical Assassin Played by Michael Fassbender

It's all homicidal procedure: gripping at times, more conventional than Fincher thinks at others.

“The Killer” turns out to be a movie about waiting around to kill people. Fassbender speaks in a low affectless drone, saying things like “On Annie Oakley jobs, distance is the only advantage” or “No one who can afford me needs to waste time winning me over to some cause” or “Most people refuse to believe that the great beyond is anything more than a cold, infinite void.” He sounds as dread-squeezed and controlled as Martin Sheen in “Apocalypse Now” when he said, “Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right.” Committing a hit may be mostly about counting down the minutes and hours, but Fincher builds the sequence with a veteran suspense filmmaker’s cunning.

The Killer will debut on Netflix on November 10. Grade: B+

Watching Woody Allen photo call in the press room

11. Coup de Chance

Nobody in the United States would give Woody Allen money to make a movie, so he made one in French, a language he does not speak, set in Paris. During the press conference, he said that he always was better at writing parts for women.

And that's true. Think about it -- long before anyone else was writing decent female roles, Woody Allen created strong female protagonists. He has received the most nominations for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, with 16. 

Coup de Chance is a solid film, entertaining, with good performances. It takes a long buildup to reach the punchline, but when it arrives, it makes you laugh out loud.

From Xan Brooks of The Guardian:

Woody Allen’s tale of ill-fated lovers is his best film in a decade

An adulterous affair between bored millionaire’s wife Fanny and struggling writer Alain is surely bound for disaster

How Allen continues to conduct his career is obviously his business alone. But if he were ever minded to collect his winnings and quit the table, his 50th feature might be a decent film to go out on. Coup de Chance is variously funny and sad, energetic and easygoing; a stumbling but satisfying autumnal drama that wanders amid the fading light and the golden leaves. For good measure, Allen even throws in an ending which stirs the memory of the classic moose-hunting routine from his old 1960s standup days; a rueful, airy aside that serves to bring the man’s career full-circle.

Woody Allen will be 88 on November 30. Someone asked him if he would ever make another movie set in New York, and he said he would if someone else raised the money, the part of film making he does not enjoy.

I hope someone does help Woody raise the money to make at least one more film in English set in New York. Coup de Chance will be in theaters in France starting on September 27, 2023. It does not have a U.S. release date... yet. Grade: B

An emotional real-life Priscilla Presley at the Venice Film Festival
Photo: Cat Bauer,
(from a live press conference streamed into the press room)

12. Priscilla

I thought Priscilla was excellent.
Cailee Spaeny, who starts off playing the 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu on a German military base, morphs into the adult wife of Elvis Presley living in Graceland. Her performance won Spaeny the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival.

From Stephanie Zakarek at Time:

Venice Review: Sofia Coppola's Priscilla Is Quietly Extraordinary

Have you ever had an intense experience—fallen madly in love, say—only to look back years later and feel it had happened to a different person, a person who had walked through a dream, and survived it, to get to the self you were destined to become? That’s the feeling Sofia Coppola captures in her quietly extraordinary Priscilla, which is adapted from the story told by Priscilla Presley in her candid and moving 1985 memoir Elvis and Me.

The real-life Priscilla Presley was here in Venice at the press conference, though not up on the panel with the film entourage. Someone asked her a question, and she gave an emotional answer from the audience. "He was the love of my life. It was the lifestyle I left. We never left each other."

Priscilla opens in the US on October 27, 2023. Go see it. Grade: A-

Seydou Sarr, director Matteo Garrone, Moustapha Fall at photo call for Io Capitano

13. Io Capitano (Me Captain)

I would translate Io Capitano to "I, Captain" instead of Me Captain. It is an extraordinary story of two innocent teenage boys from Senegal who dream of coming to Europe to become pop stars. They are not running away from war or extreme poverty. They just want the freedom to move to another country.


In order to arrive in Europe, these two boys must make a harrowing, brutal, deadly journey through the
Sahara Desert and across the Mediterranean Sea. One boy ends up behind the helm of a rickety boat stuffed with 250 fellow migrants. It is based on true events.

From Leila Latiff at Indie Wire:

‘Io Capitano’ Review: Matteo Garrone’s Stunning Film Puts a Human Face on the Migrant Crisis

Venice: Garrone's film hinges on one of the most impressive and transfixing acting debuts in recent memory, from breakout Seydou Sarr.

The film itself is inspired by real-life events, in which Garonne came across a story about a 15-year-old boy who had no nautical or navigation experience but was tasked by a people smuggler to take up the captain’s mantle and steer a boat carrying 250 people across the Mediterranean. But despite there being no shortage of hideous accounts of the journey to Europe for desperate African refugees, Seydou and his accompanying cousin have foolishly deep wells of optimism. Garonne uses their naivete to ratchet up suspense, making each time they trust in the goodness of their fellow man feel like watching an inebriated teenage girl in a slasher movie enter a dark basement.
Io Capitano is the perfect Hero's Journey. Matteo Garrone won Best Director and Seydou Sarr won Best Young Actor. Right now, Me Captain has no US distribution. When somebody figures out how to get the film in front of the eyes of English-speaking audiences, make every effort to see it. Grade: A

UPDATE - September 24, 2023: Io Capitano was chosen by Italy as its candidate for Best International Film at the 96th Academy Awards, and is on the cusp of announcing a US deal, according to Deadline.

14. Origin

Again, I agree most with Leila Latiff at Indie Wire:
‘Origin’ Review: Ava DuVernay Links Historical Injustices Together in Sprawling Misfire

Venice: DuVernay's adaptation of Isabel Wilkerson's "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents" comes across as a misguided riff on the "Eat Pray Love" formula.

The best thing that can be said about “Origin” — beyond the undeniable fact that it’s competently made — is that it really does make you want to read the book. Wilkerson research into the anthropological rot that links enslavement and segregation in America to the plight of the Dalits in India and the Holocaust is fascinating in the parallels it draws between what could otherwise be regarded as disparate acts of societal evil. But fails to offer sufficient nuance, speeding through to the moment where she finally lays out the eight core “pillars” of the argument without clear distinction. It seems an obvious criticism to say that a nonfiction book would have been better suited for adaptation to a documentary.

Neon will release Origin sometime in late 2023. Wait for it to stream. Grade: C

15. Hit Man

There is nothing earth-shattering about Hit Man. It's just fun and entertaining, and would make a good movie for a dinner and a date.

From Xan Brooks at The Guardian:

Richard Linklater mixes philosophy and fun in true-crime caper

The director shows off his quickfire, casual side with a yarn about a contract killer who isn’t all he seems

Richard Linklater’s latest is a jaunty action comedy that spins its machine-tooled high concept like a bicycle wheel – sometimes with shrewd intent, sometimes for pure fun. Loosely based on a longform true-crime article by Skip Hollandsworth, it follows the fortunes of Gary Johnson, a fake contract killer for the New Orleans police department, setting up stings in cheap diners while the cops wait outside. In the hands of a lesser director, Hit Man would surely have felt rather thin and disposable. But Linklater is a pro, and he manages to make the film’s fripperies feel borderline profound.

It seems Hit Man will be released in the States on October 6. You can take a date to see it, or wait for it to stream. Grade: B

16. Holly

I really tried to find another critic besides Leila Latiff at Indie Wire who I agreed with about the Belgium film, Holly, but I couldn't. It seems Latiff and I have the same taste in films. Everyone else seemed to like Holly more than either of us.

From Leila Latiff at Indie Wire:

‘Holly’ Review: A New Twist on ‘Carrie’ Forgets Its Bloodiest Pleasures

Venice: Fien Troch's film pulls liberally from the Stephen King playbook, but is missing its catharsis and insight.

What’s most frustrating about “Holly” is its potential. No one is suggesting that Troch’s film should offer a full exploration of a teenage girl becoming the messiah (well, maybe, Ryan Murphy would see this material and suggest that), but its strange for a film to commence with the immolation of her peers and then spend the next 90 minutes barely shifting those relationships.
Holly will be released on November 22, 2023 in Belgium. Do these movies ever pop up in the States with English subtitles on some streaming service? Grade: C

17. Paradise Is Burning

I really liked Paradise Is Burning, which screened in the Orizzonti (Horizons) section of the Venice Film Festival, and was not reviewed by the major critics. It's about three underage sisters growing up without a mother, who ran off and left them on their own.

First, to give you some context, here's the review from Rebecca Rosén at an indie publication called Flip Screen:
‘Paradise is Burning’ (2023) Is a Triumphant Love Letter to Sisterhood
"An equally beautiful and heartbreaking coming-of-age tale that delicately balances humour with pain”

Having a sibling is perfectly summed up in the act of telling a person to go to hell and then worrying about them getting there safely—it’s an intricate relationship filled with both frustration and love. Although commonly portrayed, it isn’t always easy to authentically present these connections simply due to their characteristic complexity. Paradise is Burning (original title: Paradiset brinner) does it successfully though, as it finds the right balance between conveying how strongly these sisters feel about each other and how much they can end up hurting each other due to the very same reason.

For most of the movie, I couldn't figure out which Scandinavian country we were in until the sisters performed coming of age ceremonies, and I thought, it's got to be Sweden. No other country has such strange customs. For example, when the youngest sister's tooth falls out, instead of putting it under a pillow and getting cash from the tooth fairy, the older sisters have her swallow her it with a shot of liquor. And when the middle sister gets her period, all the girls in the 'hood get together while she gulps red wine and roars through her teeth like a wild beast.

It turned out the country was Sweden, but the rituals were complete fiction. In the Q&A after the screening, director Mika Gustafson said they invented the ceremonies to fit the sisters. I told her that she's going to have the rest of the world thinking that's what girls really do in Sweden!

Probably the only way you'll get to see the film is if it is nominated to be Sweden's candidate for Best International Film, which it very well could be. Grade: A-

18. Gasoline Rainbow

The kids are all right! I really enjoyed this movie. It seems the only thing that has changed in the 50 years since I graduated high school is more piercings and tattoos. Otherwise everything seems about the same, including the music.

From Leslie Felperin of The Hollywood Reporter:

‘Gasoline Rainbow’ Review: The Ross Brothers’ Teen Road Movie Is a Pleasurable Ride

The latest from Bill and Turner Ross is about a group of high-school friends who set out to see the Pacific.

...
As with the Ross Brothers other films, it’s obvious there’s no written dialogue for the performers to recite back, but there is more of a sense of a guiding narrative trajectory here than in some of the other films. All five kids are complete naturals on camera, and you would never guess that they just met through the making of the film and didn’t know each other for years. The way they respond to music collectively is recognizably very Gen Z...

Mubi will release the film in 2024. If you're Gen Z or curious, get high and go see it. Grade: B+

19. The Red Suitcase

The Red Suitcase was in the Orizzonti (Horizons) section. I can't find a review. It's a co-production from Nepal and Sri Lanka. 

Here's a brief article from Naman Ramachandran at Variety:
Venice Horizons Film ‘The Red Suitcase’ Unpacks Rare Nepal-Sri Lanka Partnership

In mystery tale “The Red Suitcase,” a pick-up truck driver leaves Kathmandu airport for a two-day drive with a delivery arriving from abroad to a remote mountain village. On the high road, a solitary figure slowly makes his way, wheeling a small red suitcase toward the same village....  “‘The Red Suitcase’ is a simple and honest film made with only local talent from South Asia.
It was too simple and honest for me. I don't know if you'll ever have the chance to see it, but it was a bit interesting to see the local scenery and learn some history. Grade: C-

Jessica Chastain morphs from nervous at the presser
to glam movie star on the Red Carpet to promote Memory

20. Memory

At the press conference for Memory, a love story about a man with dementia and a single mother in AA, Jessica Chastain said she was nervous about coming to the Venice Film Festival during the strike -- she wore a bold, black tee-shirt to support the cause. She said, “I am here because SAG-AFTRA has been explicitly clear that the way to support the strike is to post on social media, walk the picket line and to work and support interim agreement projects. It’s what our national board, negotiating committee and our elected leadership has asked us to do.”

“The independent producers, like the ones here, are letting the AMPTP know that actors deserve fair compensation, that AI protection should be implemented, and there should be sharing of streaming revenues. I hope my being here today encourages other independent producers, and encourages actors to show up and support our union members. Hopefully we will see an end to the strike soon and hopefully AMPTP will go back to the table.”

From

Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard Are So Weirdly Right Together in Memory

...Luckily, we have these two actors, who when together feel like a chemical reaction come to life. Her tension is transformed by his pleasant pliancy, and vice-versa. Sylvia is burdened by a swirl of memories — most of which we get only hints of — confronted by a man who can’t remember increasingly vast stretches of his life. As their relationship grows in tenderness, we pull for them, even as we sense that something horrifying might be around the corner....

Later on in the evening on the red carpet Chastain morphed into a golden, glamorous movie star, signing autographs and taking selfies. Coming near the end of the Venice Film Festival, it was an incredibly effective way to illustrate the riveting power of a Hollywood star, and the singular value of real-life human actors. Movie stars appearing on the red carpet at the world premieres of their films and interacting with their fans is an essential element of the Venice Film Festival.

Peter Sarsgaard won Best Actor, his wife, Maggie Gyllenhaal at his side. It does not seem that Memory, written and directed by Michel Franco, has a release date yet in the US Let's hope the strike settles soon so you can see it. Grade: B+

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog