The Venice Film Festival Diaries: Warwick Thornton's 'Sweet Country' and Better than Fiction with 'Cuba' and 'Wormwood'

Peter Sarsgaard in a still from Errol Morris’ ‘Wormwood’
Peter Sarsgaard in a still from Errol Morris’ ‘Wormwood’

On one of the English language news channels this morning, they were talking about this new film ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’ which is making a big splash — or shall I say “flush” — in India at the moment. It’s a love story shot around the absolute, undeniably dire need for better plumbing facilities in the Desh. “This is one instance where perhaps a movie has been able to change policies,” said one anchor. Duh, I thought. Cinema has been changing the way we think, act and feel since its inception. It’s just that we don’t often think about it, because the kind of films which usually change us, for better or for worse, are those that entertain us without apparently teaching us anything. But the power of their subliminal messages is there, always, on the big screen, your TV and even your mobile screen.

At this year’s Venice Film Festival there was a series filmed like a news program — Netflix’s ‘Wormwood’ — a documentary that played as grandly as fiction — I’m thinking of ‘Cuba and the Cameraman’ — and even a western shot Down Under — ‘Sweet Country’ — which reminds us of the simple enough truth that whatever mistakes we don’t learn from we are bound to endlessly repeat.

Director Errol Morris’ ’Wormwood’, starring Peter Sarsgaard.

Granted I find actor Peter Sarsgaard so interesting he could probably read the phonebook and I’d watch that, spellbound. But I think his talent actually lies in picking exactly the right projects which highlight his sultry, mysterious ways. ‘Wormwood’ is one such project and it will be streaming on Netflix starting this December. Not soon enough, trust me.

While I am typically pretty good at detecting the untruths and manipulations even within a documentary, ‘Wormwood’ is constructed in such a way that I never figured out what part of it is reality and which is made up. Actually, is it all made up? Well, no because the premise of an LSD experiment conducted by the CIA on its scientists — in particular coming to light through the “accidental” death of biochemist Dr. Frank Olson is based on true events. Yet seems so far fetched and at the same time conspiracy-theories-plausible that watching just six episodes of it remains the series’ only letdown.

On a personal aside, the interviews for ‘Wormwood’ took place on this strange, ominous looking island with a dark light tower hovering over the otherwise minimalist Fascist-era buildings. Think ‘Shutter Island’, Venice style. I didn’t manage to stay in Venice long enough to participate in the junket with Morris and Sarsgaard but somehow managed to bump into the actor while he was being photographed for The Hollywood Reporter. When I pointed out the sultriness of his performance as a DEA agent in another project he is featured in at the festival, ‘Loving Pablo’, in all his gracious ways, and without missing a beat Sarsgaard replied “it was all because of that mustache!”

‘Wormwood’ will be available starting December 15th, 2017.

‘Cuba and the Cameraman’ by Jon Alpert.

Yes, in case you were wondering, this film is another Netflix project, and that’s because they are the one company in entertainment today possessing the courage to feature films and series which would not be possible unless they existed. There I’ve said it. While watching the beautifully shot, wonderfully insightful first person account of a lifetime covering Cuba and Fidel Castro, I could not help but think how important this documentary is. How much it has the power to change our current policies, if only we could get some of our leaders to watch it. Was Fidel perfect? Far from it, but he was perfectly human and there is undeniable brilliance about his policies that the US still hasn’t been able to replicate, with so much more money and resources available. I’m talking about health care, education and affordable housing, which are still as mythical as Santa Claus as far as our economy is concerned.

Director Jon Alpert (center wearing a cap) on the set of ‘Cuba and the Cameraman’.
Director Jon Alpert (center wearing a cap) on the set of ‘Cuba and the Cameraman’.

Jon Alpert was clear in not making a one-sided film, one that celebrates Fidel as grandiose or vilifies him as evil only. That’s the greatness of ‘Cuba and the Cameraman’, that finally we get a human being Castro, one filled with nuances and shades of grey, and he has never been portrayed as such before. Perhaps that should be the new way we view world leaders today, as humans first, so that even their most outrageous mistakes can be understood and dealt with diplomatically — not by starting more wars and arguments.

‘Sweet Country’ by Warwick Thornton.

What is justice, and who should be authorized to decide what is right or wrong? Are we forever bound to repeat the mistakes of our past, because we simply don’t acknowledge them? Why when we are faced with “the Other”, someone who is different from us, do we always choose violence instead of comprehension? Those are just some of the ideas that Indigenous Australian filmmaker Warwick Thornton explores in his touching, visually breathtaking Western-style feature ‘Sweet Country’.

Set in the years just following WWI, Thornton takes us on a journey deep into the Australian wilderness, and I don’t just mean the harsh countryside but also the violent men who inhabited it. Unkind to themselves, hateful to the indigenous people and downright terrifying to women, these were Australians whose manners and ways will leave the viewer shocked. Even if the most terrifying villain is played by a favorite actor of mine, Ewen Leslie as the shellshocked Harry March, and he’s surrounded by a stellar cast which includes Morris, Sam Neill and Bryan Brown.

And yet, instead of making a violent testosterone filled epic, Thornton manages such a thoughtful, beautiful film, one which stayed with me, its haunting images and perfect balance of good and evil returning to my thoughts from time to time, still inhabiting my consciousness.

Finally, the Albergo Quattro Fontane my home away from home.

Last night Jim Carrey tweeted this perfect video about Venice. He got it, truly he found the right way and means to explain this magical, mystical place without a lot of words or even a big show. Venice is wonderful, the Venetians true gentlemen and gentlewomen, putting all other Italians to shame. And no, I didn’t stay at the same hotel as Carrey, he just expressed best what we all feel when we come to this festival, as long as we stop for a few minutes and make it a point to watch the world go by.

For me, the kind of tranquil state of mind that allows for great exploration can only be achieved when I have a cozy room to come home to. And year after year, the Albergo Quattro Fontane allows me to experience the festival in an elegant, quiet and comfortable way. From my quaint little corner room on the top floor, I begin every day with giddy excitement and a wonder that would not be possible if I stayed anywhere else. The lovely morning breakfast complete with the best frothy cappuccino, served in a large porcelain cup; the two or three words and occasional joke I share from time to time with all the kind concierge who work at the Quattro Fontane hotel. Even the trembling of the antique glass panes on my windows as the boats approach the docks of the Casinò below, it’s all become so inherently Venice for me, I couldn’t enjoy the festival without it.

So, to everyone at my home away from home in Venice, as I leave today for further adventures, I say thank you. From the bottom of my heart.

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