Cecilia Mangini’s The World in Shots at Venice, A Living Archive of Over a Half-Century of Images
There has been a positive shift in the last couple years for films selected for the Venice Film Festival competition. Previously, festival director Alberto Barbera stubbornly declared that films would be selected for their merits, an arbitrary selection process which resulted in few women featured in the lineups. This year at the 78th Venice Film Festival, which ran from September 1 – 11, was exceptional, with films by several women winning top awards. The Golden Lion went to Audrey Diwan’s abortion drama Happening. The feature chronicles the story of a student in provincial France who realizes she is pregnant during the countdown to her final examinations. The film was chosen for the award in a unanimous decision by the jury, presided over by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho.
After a 12-year absence from feature filmmaking, Jane Campion won the Silver Lion for best director for The Power of the Dog, released on Netflix andbased on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. It was passed over for selection for the 74th Cannes Film Festival because it had not yet opened at French cinemas and was being streamed by Netflix. At the Venice press conference Campion declared that she regards Netflix as the modern-day equivalent of the Medici’s—the 15th century Italian banking dynasty—due to their financial resources for film finance today. They financed The Power of the Dog, and she was enthusiastic about the backing. She reported that the “climate has changed” for female-driven films, with more funding sources such as Netflix meaning there are more development projects and more women making films because of it. The Power of the Dog is a homoerotic story about two Montana brothers (Benedict Cumberbatch and George Plemons) and bunkmates whose equilibrium is disturbed when one of them marries a waitress and piano accompanist for silent films (Kirsten Dunst) who moves to their palatial ranch with her teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who is in med school.
The best screenplay award at Venice went to first-time writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal for The Lost Daughter, based on one of the four-part “Neapolitan Novels” by the anonymous author who goes by the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. Gyllenhaal revealed at the Venice press conference that she has “always been a director and didn’t feel entitled to admit it to herself.” Her film is a layered interwoven drama about mothers and daughters. A British college professor (Olivia Colman) is on holiday and her peace is disturbed by the arrival of an American woman (Dakota Johnson) and her family to the beach they share. Her past is recreated through an assemblage of characters including herself as a young mother (Jessie Buckley).
Jamie Lee Curtis received this year’s Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement Award. Upon accepting the honor, Curtis said that Halloween Kills and her partnership with her character Laurie Strode “launched and sustained her career.” She praised Italian cinema for honoring the horror genre and accepted the award on behalf of Laurie and all the courageous heroines of the world who stand tall in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and refuse to yield. One major focus of Italian thriller horror or “giallo” from the late 60’s and 70’s was the sexuality and psyche of a vulnerable woman. Laurie Strode and the Strode women—daughter and granddaughter—join her and other survivors in a vigilante hunt for Michael in this latest edition to the franchise. David Gordon Green’s Halloween Kills screened out of competition, the latest edition to the franchise based on John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) starring a young Jamie Lee Curtis.
Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s Spencer, starring Kristen Stewart debuted at the festival. It explores the “mystery” of Diana Spencer’s phenomenal public appeal. Set in 1991 when the royal marriage was on the rocks, Spencer invites the audience to experience a fantasy about the Princess of Wales that takes place for three days: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing day, with lavish holiday traditions and wardrobe changes. It is a visual choreography set to the music of Jonny Greenwood with scenes involving the ghost of Queen Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded for treason. Kristen Stewart’s performance is brilliant as a princess who is often on the verge of collapse due to pressures from the royal family.
This year there were two debut films at festivals concerning Ingmar Bergman, a director who created powerful, albeit problematic roles for women. At Venice, Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac starred in a screening of the HBO TV series Scenes from a Marriage, a remake of the Bergman 1973 miniseries, whose broadcasts resulted in an historic record of divorce in Sweden. Set in Boston, the series’ cinema verité style and the updates to the original script are excellent. Bergman Island, which debuted at Cannes in July, is directed by Mia Hansen-Løve and follows two screenwriters who stay in Bergman’s summer residence and sleep in one of the rooms where Scenes From a Marriage was filmed.
For me, the most memorable film at Venice was the documentary Il Mondo a scatti – The World in Shots co-directed by Cecilia Mangini and Paolo Pisanelli, artistic director of the “Cinema de Reale” in Lecce, Italy. It is an homage to documentary filmmaker and photographer Cecilia Mangini, and it is her last film—she died in January at the age of 94. Mangini was the first female postwar documentary filmmaker in Italy; she chronicled the world with her camera for over a half a century.
The World in Shots includes documentary footage of Cecilia discussing film with the phenomenal Agnès Varda in an unforgettable meeting of two great women at the 2011 “Cinema del Reale festival”. It was the first time they met and they both spoke about the essence of documentary film. Losing two of our finest women behind the camera within the space of two years is a real blow, yet they leave a magnificent legacy of images and work. The World in Shots is a superb tribute to Mangini. Pisanelli provides kinesis to her stills. Old passports, photographs, programs, and artifacts kept in her spacious apartment in Rome. In fact, it is a living archive, with Mangini telling us the background to her work. There is footage of a trip she made to Iran at the 36th Fajr International Film Festival in 2018, where she is discussing her work with young Iranian filmmakers, as well as footage from the Créteil Films de Femmes Festival in Paris, which had a retrospective of her work as guest of honor and a special public event hosted with festival director Jackie Buet. A jubilant Mangini entertained the public with her experiences as a photographer in this face-to-face meeting.
Cecilia Mangini was in Vietnam off and on from 1945 to 1965 and photographed the people, cities, and villages, images that were intended for a film to be made with her husband, filmmaker Lino Del Fra. She eventually used them in the documentary Due scatole dimenticate (Two Forgotten Boxes, Italy 2020). Clips of Mangini’s most famous collaborative films are shown in The World of Shots including Two Forgotten Boxes—films that made her an internationally renowned documentary filmmaker. All’armi, siam fascisti (To Arms We’re Fascists 1962) with Lino del Fra and Lino Miccichè, is a montage of archival footage on the development of fascism in Italy by Benito Mussolini from 1919. From after his death there is footage from her first documentary, which was co-written with the famous Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini—Ignoti alla città (Unknown to the City” 1958) on adolescent boys in Rome’s suburbs where he would later be murdered in 1975. Scenes from Stendalì: Suonano ancora (Stendalì: Still They Toll 1960) concern female Sicilian funeral rites with text by Pasolini. This poignant film shows women grieving and chanting lamentations in an ancient Greek dialect, since Sicily was once colonized by Greece. Their physical movements in mourning, their swaying with raised hands and small leaps are visceral and kinetic, which Mangini was so adept at assembling.
Mangini is frequently seen in A World of Shots with camera in hand, whether demonstrating with her fist raised on the streets of Rome for a march, watching the people outside the Beaubourg in Paris, or admiring art in museums. The camera was an intrinsic part of her, and these shots reveal her love of the world and the people who inhabit it. In a collage of Mangini’s work at the end of the film, we are reminded of what an extraordinary artist she was and how we will miss her images, the ones she continued to make at the age of 94. The film ends with the famous portrait of Italian workers, Faces, that she took in 1966 in Puglia. It is a close inspection of the men and their faces, still haunting after nearly fifty years. It is photoshopped so all are wearing pink masks in today’s pandemic. This powerful image is on the website for the “Cinema del Reale” festival. Mangini was always looking for what was real and captured what she felt was compelling in the world about her. She did it to enrich our lives and expand our vision of the world she saw through the lens of her camera.
The Venice Film Festival is not only a panorama of new films with artistic content but a presentation of famous historic Italian films and filmmakers to the international film public. This range contributes to its reputation as a dynamic and unique festival experience.