‘Joker’, directed by Todd Phillips, was awarded the Golden Lion for best film at the 76th Venice International Film Festival on Saturday by a competition jury led by Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel. The film received fervent attention as well as critical praise for its portrayal of its troubled, murderous central figure, drawn from the DC Comics character and played by Joaquin Phoenix.
“There is no movie without Joaquin Phoenix, the fiercest and bravest and most open-minded lion that I know,” Phillips said in an acceptance speech, playing on the name of the festival’s signature awards. The director also thanked the film’s studio, Warner Brothers, and DC Comics for “stepping out of their comfort zone” and “taking such a bold swing on me and this movie.”
Phillips’ previous films include comedies such as ‘The Hangover’, its two sequels and ‘Old School’.
The award for ‘Joker’, an unusual selection for the Venice competition, came on the heels of an unexpected high-profile honour for a new film by Roman Polanski. The Silver Lion, the penultimate prize, went to Polanski’s ‘An Officer and a Spy’, a retelling of the anti-Semitic persecution of French army officer Alfred Dreyfus.
Polanski, who fled the United States four decades ago while awaiting sentencing for statutory rape, remains a flashpoint for controversy and was expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2018. French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, who is married to Polanski and in his new film, accepted the award on his behalf. Polanski did not attend the festival.
The Silver Lion award for Best Director went to Roy Andersson for ‘About Endlessness’, a series of tragicomic tableau scenes. Andersson won the Golden Lion for Best Film five years ago for ‘A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence’.
Among the prizes for acting, Luca Marinelli won the Coppa Volpi for Best Actor for his role as a sailor turned writer in Pietro Marcello’s ‘Martin Eden’, an adaptation of the novel by Jack London. Ariane Ascaride won for Best Actress for ‘Gloria Mundi’, directed by Robert GuEdiguian. The Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor or Actress went to Toby Wallace in ‘Babyteeth’, the debut feature from Australian director Shannon Murphy, one of two female directors in the competition.
The 76th edition of the festival opened with Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda’s drama ‘The Truth’, starring Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke, in a change of pace from recent high-profile Hollywood openers such as ‘First Man’. The showcase of prominent auteurs continued with Noah Baumbach (‘Marriage Story’), James Gray (‘Ad Astra’), Andersson (‘About Endlessness’), Lou Ye (‘Saturday Fiction’), Olivier Assayas (‘Wasp Network’), Pablo Larrain (‘Ema’), Polanski (‘An Officer and a Spy’) and Steven Soderbergh (‘The Laundromat’).
The line-up resulted in a starry two weeks in Venice. In addition to the stars of ‘The Truth’, also in attendance were Brad Pitt, Scarlett Johansson, TimothEe Chalamet, Adam Driver, Meryl Streep, Penelope Cruz, Kristen Stewart and Mick Jagger.
However, the festival remained under close scrutiny amid concerns about the selection of Polanski’s ‘An Officer and a Spy’ (also known as ‘J’accuse’), especially given the low number of female filmmakers in the competition. Disagreements played out in public after Martel, the competition jury president, made early worried comments about Polanski’s film.
In addition to ‘An Officer and a Spy’, the festival also screened a new film, ‘American Skin’, by another controversial director, Nate Parker. Parker’s acquittal on rape charges during his time in college gained new attention after his film ‘Birth of a Nation’ premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016. Parker’s ‘American Skin’ won a prize in Venice’s Sconfini section.
Geopolitics came to the fore in acceptance speeches. Accepting the award for Best Screenplay for the animated feature ‘No 7 Cherry Lane’, director Yonfan spoke out in support of freedom in Hong Kong. Amjad Abu Alala, who took home the Luigi de Laurentiis award for a debut film for ‘You Will Die at 20’, mentioned in his acceptance speech the new government in Sudan. Barbara Paz, who accepted the Venice Classics Award for Best Documentary on Cinema for her film ‘Babenco — Tell Me When I Die’, spoke passionately against censorship in Brazil. Political protest extended offstage as well: The day before the awards, demonstrations against climate change occurred at the festival.
The Special Jury Prize was given to a satirical documentary, Franco Maresco’s ‘La mafia non e piu quella di una volta’ (roughly translated as ‘The Mafia Isn’t What It Used to Be’). The best film in the festival’s Horizons section was Valentyn Vasyanovych’s ‘Atlantis’. Notable prize-winners in the section included Theo Court’s ‘Blanco en Blanco’, starring Alfredo Castro, and ‘Verdict’, from Filipino filmmaker Raymund Ribay Gutierrez.
This year’s Golden Lions for lifetime achievement were given to Julie Andrews and to Pedro Almodovar, whose film ‘Pain and Glory’ was shown at Cannes in May.