At the Venice Film Festival, women are at the center of several films

There’s a moment that comes every time I’m lucky enough to attend the Venice Film Festival, just before it all kicks off, when the hectic screening schedules still seem entirely doable, and the deadlines are a long way off. and abstract, almost pretty, like distant flocks of birds. Freewheeling on the Lido (the barrier island in the Venetian lagoon where the festival takes place) on a recently rented bike, the wonderful weather, the warm breeze and the lesser flavorful with centuries of salty history, I think I’m more predictably, downright happy than any other day of the year.

Regular attendees know to be slightly conspiratorial about Venice, to keep some of her magical secret in case the universe realizes there’s been a clerical error and she’s been taken from us. Because even in a normal year – and who knows if we’ll ever have one again? — this festival is a rare privilege that no one can really deserved. And in times of a pandemic, regardless of the inconveniences of the Covid restrictions, a repulsive carabineer noticeably increased attendance and a glitchy and restrictive online reservation system, it’s somewhat less than miraculous that we’re here again, amidst all that beauty and sparkling lagoon light, which we had to completely ignore for 10 days passed in the haunting darkness.

But this year, the 78th of the festival, from the start, the darkness was full of life. Pedro Almodóvar’s opener, “Parallel Mothers,” came like a comet, shooting off the screen in a blaze of shameless melodrama so audacious it practically blew the mask off my face – but don’t scared, if that had really happened, one of the ushers would have been on top of me in an instant. Mask-wearing was one of the most assiduously enforced protocols; even the middle row offenders were publicly humiliated by being immediately targeted with a red laser pointer, which must have felt like being in the crosshairs of a sniper.

“Parallel Mothers” stars Penélope Cruz in a performance that deserved the Best Actress award she won here. She plays a woman who bonds with her scared young roommate (Milena Smit) in a maternity ward, then discovers that they are more inextricably linked than she could have imagined. It’s messy and over the top, soap opera in its many twists and reveals, and ultimately gorgeous. Although I am among the lucky few to have attended festivals in Europe more or less continuously since Cannes, I saw in Almodóvar’s expansive, generous and sincere vision something that was missing elsewhere – a brash cinematic experience and hot, which contains more dimensions of vigor than the laws of physics allow a flat image to convey. Glorifying in Cruz’s fantastical, funny and earthy performance – notes that only Almodóvar ever seems to find in an actress often pigeonholed as a kitten sex object – and in the director’s eccentric and unmistakable style, I levitated through thought “Parallel mothers”: this, that, this.

Which was good, because Almodóvar’s film introduced the theme of difficult motherhood that quickly became a recurring element. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s stunning debut film ‘The Lost Daughter’, based on a novel by Elena Ferrante, stars an irreplaceable Olivia Colman as Leda, the middle-aged mother of grown children, who, as Cruz’s character in “Parallel Mothers”, sees connections between her life and that of a younger woman (Dakota Johnson). With Leda played in an earlier period by Jessie Buckley, Gyllenhaal’s chillingly accomplished debut film actually gives us two complex performances of the same character, and while the actresses don’t look alike physically, there’s something deeply persuasive about the continuity of the gesture. and the body language that Colman and Buckley achieve. And you don’t have to be a mother – or even a woman – to understand Leda’s contradictions, and to find unsettling recognition in a devious tale of painful decisions – in some monstrously selfish ways – that induce eternal guilt but which can never be entirely regretted.

Speaking of which, ‘Spencer’, Pablo Larraín’s controversial and highly stylized three-day take on the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, just before her official separation from Prince Charles, gave us another unforgettable portrayal of womanhood. in conflict, and another unforgettable piece of inspiration. of the cast of Kristen Stewart. Stewart’s thorny relationship with fame provides a fascinating metatextual layer to this highly uneven biopic in which, much like he did with Jackie Kennedy in “Jackie,” Larraín shatters genre conventions into a million shimmering pieces. like the oppressive and opulent chandeliers. of Sandringham House – the location of the film, here a place as strangely unwelcoming as the Overlook the hotel.

Audrey Diwan’s “Happening” – the low-key competition entry selected unexpectedly and gratifyingly by Bong Joon Ho’s jury as winner of the Golden Lion – is the poignant but delicate story of a young Frenchwoman (a remarkable Anamaria Vartolomei) struggling with the taboo of an unwanted pregnancy in 1963. Jane Campion’s ‘The Power of the Dog’, which won her the Silver Lion for Best Director, is apparently the story of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil , a charismatic breeder and bully in sexual conflict. But that, too, revolves around a troubled mother, here a sober and immaculate Kirsten Dunst, and her oddly codependent relationship with her doting son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Even in the competition’s most overtly genre-influenced entry, Ana Lily Amirpour’s amusing, graphic-novel “Mona Lisa and Blood Moon,” Kate Hudson plays wildly and successfully against type in her role as a stripper. teaser, who is also a real “bad mother” to her autonomous but lonely young son (an endearing Evan Whitten).

There were, of course, films that centralized the experiences of men: most notably, for those who see Venice as a testing ground for Oscar contenders, Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘The Hand of God’, a film you don’t have to worry much. to be recognized as the kind of lavish, lovingly made, autobiographical nostalgic journey that will no doubt become an international hit. More to my liking, though significantly less accessible, was Valentyn Vasyanovych’s terrific “Reflection,” a difficult tale – especially in its trigger-warning-worthy scenes of torture – based on a painting of a returning Ukrainian father a moving passage in enemy captivity; Filipino filmmaker Erik Matti’s sprawling, uneven but gripping procedural on corruption and journalism “On the Job: The Missing 8”; and a gripping, subdued offering from Venezuelan Golden Lion winner Lorenzo Vigas, “The Box,” which details a earthy teenager’s sudden entry into violent adulthood when he becomes attached to the ruthless stranger. whom he believes to be his father.

Even so, as evidenced by an awards series featuring three female directors (Diwan, Campion and Gyllenhaal) taking major awards behind the camera, when there were only five in total in the 21 titles of the competition, it is quite striking to see how heavily this Venice weighed towards women and women’s stories. And, perhaps because of the necessary compromises of this year’s festival format that made last-minute discoveries based on a stroll through a projection you just heard about on an Aperol spritz a thing of the past, such themes had to be pronounced unequivocally to connect.

Neatly spaced in our assigned seats, unable, due to the advance reservation mandate, to enjoy the more spontaneous, buzz-based cinematic pleasures offered in the Before Times, watching ensnared characters – often women – whose stories were told less by the action than by the complex mythologies that played on their close-up faces, at Venice 2021 it sometimes felt like islands, looking at islands, on an island. But if we weren’t as thoroughly entwined together on this little strip of seaside land as we have been in the past, and if we have to get used to maybe not being so in the near future, we were at least islands linked to each other under the light of the same projector beam. Venice is, after all, an archipelago.

Darcy J. Skinner