The Venice Film Festival Diaries: 'The Shape of Water', the Wonder of Netflix and Lucrecia Martel's 'Zama'

A still from Lucrecia Martel’s ‘Zama’
A still from Lucrecia Martel’s ‘Zama’

While my first 36 hours at the Venice Film Festival were filled with impossible sunshine and balmy heat, with this morning’s thunderstorms came both barometric relief but also some much needed introspection. I found myself in a deep, thoughtful place thanks to a beautiful meeting with Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel and a morning screening of Netflix’s ‘Our Souls at Night’.

Guillermo del Toro’s ‘The Shape of Water’

If you can imagine a fairy tale world enclosed in the lights and sounds of a fishbowl aquarium, featuring an unconventional heroine with womanly needs and otherworldly taste, and an ominous, fascinatingly sexy villain then you’re on the right track to figuring out Guillermo del Toro’s latest oeuvre. ‘The Shape of Water’ is a fantasy, yet in order to truly find a spot within our modern — read: jaded — hearts, it offers the fantastical sprinkled with servings of real emotions, human longings and wraps it up in a perfect what-we-all-are-looking-for-is-just-someone-to-understand-us package.

It doesn’t hurt that del Toro has cast Sally Hawkins as the mute Elisa, Michael Shannon as the dangerous Strickland and Richard Jenkins as her neighbor Giles — along with Octavia Spencer as the talkative Zelda and Doug Jones as “the Asset”. The latter is part creature from the Black Lagoon, part Aquaman and all threatening water monster turned romantic hero and somehow, as crazy as the setup all seems in writing, the films works. Perfectly.

Listening to del Toro talk after watching the film once again highlighted the reason why I love what I do. With quotes like “fantasy is a very political genre and the most political act is to choose love over fear — our first duty when we wake up is to believe in love,” or “I’m Mexican and I know what it’s like to be looked at as “the Other”; this is a story about an entitled motherfucker who thinks all these other characters are invisible,” you can begin to see exactly what I mean.

The creature never has a name in the film, which was a conscious choice for del Toro. He explained, that the Asset is a “dark dirty thing that comes from the south for Strickland; yet for Elisa he represents love.” Then joked “on the set we called him Charlie, you know, as in Charlie the Tuna!” About working on the film, Hawkins admitted “those things rarely happen and when they do it’s magic,” while Jenkins, with his usual kindness, gushed “everything that I did in the movie came from the page, and that’s what I look for when I read the script; is this character a human being, is he filled with flaws? To be part of this is so freaking fabulous as this is more than I could have ever hoped for.” And just when I thought the great quotes were coming to an end, del Toro added that working on this was like “Douglas Sirk directing Pasolini’s Teorema with a fish!” Amen to that.

Lucrecia Martel’s ‘Zama’

Nearly ten years after presenting her last feature, ‘The Headless Woman’ Lucrecia Martel brings to Venice the wonder of ‘Zama’ — a period piece about a man stuck in a kind of personal limbo which doesn’t feel anything like a history lesson and seems perfectly suited to our here and now. But Martel has hardly been sitting on her laurels, even though she could considering how highly regarded she is by the cinematic elite and how beloved she is by her audiences. She’s been working on other projects, and existing as a woman beyond the filmmaker, I imagine.

Lucrecia Martel on the set of ‘Zama’
Lucrecia Martel on the set of ‘Zama’

What struck me about ‘Zama’ is how perfectly as a filmmaker she portrays the grand scale of human interactions yet manages to convey them as nothing more than complex family dramas — and we all know those, right?! And what impressed me with the woman Lucrecia Martel is her courage, her personal style and the strength of her beliefs. Perhaps sharing some of those beliefs — like the fact that violence against women depicted in American films, no matter how sympathetic to the subject a filmmaker is, still perpetuates the violence aspect of it — made our meeting seem like a magical moment in time. At one point, when I couldn’t really formulate a question quite right, Martel jumped in and answered it anyway, the way she understood it, thus providing some of the best soundbites of the entire talk. When I asked her about the advantages of being a woman in cinema she pointed to the fact that we are “trained to fail”, which makes women more prepared for survival in the Seventh Art because filmmaking requires a lot of failure.

Tired as I am personally of the symbolism often associated with everything she does, all her cinematic choices, I asked what her own thoughts were about those critics who find so much within her minimalistic, soulful filmmaking. “I believe this idea of decoding things is kind of a human sport,” Martel pointed out, “and the origin of that is the need to expand over what other people do.” Then concluding, and I was ready to give her a standing ovation for this next part, “which is fine but I think there is a lack of intellectual effort on the part of those who do that.”

Netflix, ‘Suburra’, ‘Wormwood’ and ‘Our Souls at Night’

While I need to remain silent for now on the Netflix upcoming Rome-centric series ‘Suburra’ and the Peter Sarsgaard starrer ‘Wormwood’ directed by Errol Morris, I can tell you that once October and December roll around — the respective dates when you’ll be able to watch each of those shows — you’ll be very, very entertained. As for me, I can say they can’t begin streaming both of those titles soon enough. But my lips are sealed for now.

What I can talk about is Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in ‘Our Souls at Night’, directed by Ritesh Batra. Lets say that when a film changes the rhythm of my breath, slows me down and allows me to look to the future with delight, even at the prospect of growing older, then that film is a winner in my book. And ‘Our Souls at Night’ also happens to possess the kind of cinematic pedigree that has me at “hello!”

The author of the book the Netflix title is based on, Kent Haruf, wrote it while he knew he was dying. Yet the novel, and the resulting film, are so hopeful and so full of love for humanity that it’s impossible to remain untouched by their author’s demise. Or rather, let me rephrase that, you’d have to be a real cold hearted fool to remain unmoved — and I’m sure we’ll separate the men from the boys when the reviews come out.

Meanwhile, I can only speak for myself and say that I was left a slobbering fool at the end of the press screening, because here is a film finally about falling in love with what we’ll be, not what we’ve been. And the proverbial drop which made my tears bucket overflow was hearing The Highwaymen’s song playing over the credits, Willie Nelson crooning those haunting lyrics “but I’m still alive...” Alive indeed, and a lot better for having watched ‘Our Souls at Night’.

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