film festivals

[Only IN Hollywood] Surprises, thrills, and grim reminders at the 2023 Venice Film Festival

Ruben V. Nepales

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[Only IN Hollywood] Surprises, thrills, and grim reminders at the 2023 Venice Film Festival

PUP. Italian actor Caterina Murino, host of the 80th Venice Film Festival, gestures next to her dog Sole. Yara Nardi/Reuters


Rappler columnist Ruben Nepales catches many outstanding movies at the marathon film viewing by the Adriatic Sea

VENICE, Italy – This year’s 80th Venice Film Festival is one of the best editions I have attended, based on the many outstanding movies I managed to catch in the marathon film viewing by the Adriatic Sea.

And the surprises, thrills, fantasies, and grim reminders of reality abound in the current offerings of the world’s oldest film festival.

So there I was watching El Conde, Pablo Larrain’s bold, inventive black humor fantasy imagining Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet as a 250-year-old bloodsucking vampire – it’s an audacious way to satirize fascism. In this hilariously irreverent comedy-horror, who should be mentioned but Ferdinand Marcos and Fulgencio Batista?

PABLO. ‘El Conde’ director Pablo Larrain. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

And who turns out to be the film’s narrator? The Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher, who once talked about the Chilean ruler, whose regime reportedly tortured and killed thousands of people, as her “good friend Mr. Pinochet.”

Two fine films tackle the worldwide refugee crisis that continues to persist. Agnieszka Holland’s gripping Green Border depicts the horrors experienced by people of various races trying to cross the border from Belarus to Poland. It’s a harrowing look at the abuse and cruelty the refugees experience as they try to escape from repressive regimes.

Mateo Garrone’s Me Captain (Io Capitano) also depicts refugees, in this case Africans trying to come to Italy. Two newcomers, Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall, compellingly play young Senegalese men who go through what many attempt in order to find better lives – endure the Sahara desert, the cruelties of Libyan detention centers, and the dangerous sea voyage.

In Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s follow-up to A Star Is Born, his acclaimed feature directing debut starring Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper proves that film was not a fluke. Cooper’s brilliance as a filmmaker is undoubtedly on display in Maestro.

An engrossing look at famed composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein’s (excellently played by Cooper) life and career, Maestro also benefits from the actor-director’s second collaboration with Filipino American cinematographer Matthew Libatique. Cooper and Libatique effortlessly segue from grand scenes (a concert inside a church is magnificently shot) to an intimate glimpse into Bernstein’s marital life (and discord) with wife Felicia.

Carey Mulligan is terrific as the wife who tries to stand by Bernstein, a bisexual whose dalliances with young men were not a secret to her. Portraying a woman who is an actress herself, Mulligan is bound to be an acting frontrunner in the coming awards season.

As a cinematic piece that delivers thrills, a visual feast, and an impressive turn by Emma Stone, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things delivers the unexpected. Based on the novel of the same name by Alasdair Gray, Poor Things is a wild, Terry Gilliam-ish tale of a mad scientist (Willem Dafoe) who likes to, shall we say, conduct bizarre experiments.

YORGOS. ‘Poor Things’ director Yorgos Tanhimos gets a standing ovation. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

How weird? In the scientist’s house, a chicken with a bulldog’s head is running around. Then we encounter Bella (Stone), who has the body of a woman but was given the brain of an infant.

Lanthimos, who was recently quoted asking why there’s not much sex in film these days, delivers plenty of that in Poor Things. And they are explicit scenes.

Stone is the director’s daring collaborator, especially in her scenes with Mark Ruffalo.

People magazine quoted Lanthimos: “The character [had to] have no shame, and Emma had to have no shame about her body, nudity, and engaging in those scenes, and she understood that right away.”

As for history-making entries, with her Origins, Ava DuVernay made history as the first Black woman filmmaker to premiere a movie in competition here at La Biennale di Venezia (Cinema). Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, Niecy Nash, and Audra McDonald are among the brilliant cast.

Let’s talk about the other films in coming columns, including Woody Allen’s Coup de Chance (he is back in top form with this one), Michael Mann’s Ferrari, Richard Linklater’s Hit Man, David Fincher’s The Killer, William Friedkin’s final film The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, Jack Huston’s Day of the Fight, and Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla.

A welcome, refreshing break from all the screenings and press conferences was the Film Development Council of the Philippines’ (FDCP) Philippine delegates’ night in Venice. With FDCP’s Rica Arevalo and Liza Ofianga as gracious hosts, it was wonderful to talk to film creatives and executives.

We all applauded the team representing the short film, Cross My Heart and Hope to Die, the only entry this year from the Philippines and Southeast Asia. So, brava to director Sam Manacsa, actress Jorrybell Agoto, producer Chad Cabigon, and coproducer Rod Marmol.

Building, Outdoors, Shelter
CROSS OUR HEARTS. (L-R) Chad Cabigon, Sam Manacsa, Jorrybell Agoto, RodMarmol. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

In the days that followed, I kept bumping into Sam as she tried to watch as many films as she could. More on Sam in a coming column.

Avid Liongoren, director and writer of Zsazsa Zaturnnah vs the Amazonistas of Planet X, was also in Lido for his projects. Being an animation filmmaker, Avid doodled on the paper placemat. I snatched it when Avid was done – the sketches are worth a fortune someday, I believe.

Over pasta (of course), I caught up with the mother and daughter team, Evelyn Vargas Knaebel and Bianca Zialcita, founder and cofounder of Maison ZBZ, respectively. We got to meet Fil-Am novelist Geraldine Solon and production manager Joshua Fontelo.

Accessories, Jewelry, Necklace
MAIZON ZBZ. Bianca Zialcita and Evelyn Vargas Knaebel. Ruben V. Nepales/Rappler

Great to see again Paolo Bertolin, who is part of Venice Film Festival’s selection committee. Asia Ruperto, cinema consultant and cultural event organizer, added to the evening’s fun conversation. –

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Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.