If it weren’t for 2007’s Redacted, Passion would be a neat, coherent follow-up to both Femme Fatale and The Black Dahlia in Brian De Palma’s filmography, in addition to being a rehashing of many of the director’s themes and trademarks. And yet Redacted, with its fragmented approach and centerless viewpoint, still seems like a thorn in Passion’s side. In the newer film, the classic De Palma milieu—doubles, voyeurism, camera movements, split screens, etc.—greets viewers like a cozy living room after a long vacation, but you’ll find that this is milieu coated in digital frenzy and wild proliferation of recorded footage. This might just be an inevitable update to go with the times, or indeed the result of a particularly heavy product-placement strategy, but it’s possible that this film's approach can be traced back to Redacted. Back then, it felt like the director was taking an unfamiliar, daring turn; now, in the age of the second screen, it could be said that there are few filmmakers out there more suited to its celebration than De Palma.

Shooting almost entirely indoors, De Palma plays hide-and-seek in his Berlin location, while simultaneously making the most of the city's predictably modern, clear-cut interior design in the advertising agency where Christine (Rachel McAdams) and Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) are working on Panasonic’s new smartphone campaign. Tension is palpable between the two—professional as well as personal. There’s attraction, a sharp rivalry, and a power struggle, in addition to a cheating boyfriend (an impressive Paul Anderson, completing the reunion of Sherlock Holmes cast members and adding an elegant hint of danger) caught in the middle. Things quickly take a turn for the worse, leading to psychological warfare at first and outright violence later on.

Before the situation escalates, giving De Palma a chance to unleash his wild imagination with a rollout of his most famous visual tricks, the story (a remake of Alain Corneau’s Love Crime from 2010) unfortunately gets stuck in a series of unconvincing and ultimately puzzling sequences. At times it feels like a parody, like a self-conscious, deliberate repetition of old solutions to new visual problems. Constantly pulling away from the characters, the camera traces sinuous trajectories in the air with no noticeable result. Everything feels stiff, as if each shot were only a stripped-down placeholder. The more visceral experimentalism of Redacted, however problematic, felt comparably much more lively (bagging a Best Director award in the process, right here in Venice). That was a new direction; this film is a retracing of the director’s footsteps, albeit without quality in mind.

The latter part of the movie proves that De Palma is still perfectly able to engage his own legacy and put a spin on it, but it’s also proof that the preceding part is simply unworthy of his talent. An anticlimactic conclusion for the Venice Competition, but hopefully yet another step in the evolution of a great director. 

Tommaso Tocci is an Italian film critic, copywriter and translator. Follow him on Twitter.

The Venice International Film Festival reviews are in. Viva Italia!

The Venice International Film Festival reviews are in. Viva Italia!


EDITOR'S NOTE: Writer Tommaso Tocci is covering the Venice International Film Festival for Press Play this year and so we have created this landing page which collects all of those links together. Here they are.




The title of Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep, adapted from Neil Gordon‘s 2003 novel of the same name, echoes the title and sentiment of Sarah Polley’s excellent documentary Stories We Tell, also shown here in Venice a few days ago. While the latter is a very intimate story dealing with the plurality of voices and truths at the heart of family narratives, and the former engages American history looking at the actions of radical-left organization the Weathermen in the 70s, Redford is just as concerned as Polley with the necessity of starting a discourse, specifically an inter-generational one. He seems earnestly consumed by this feeling, and does nothing to hide it in his movies. The last three films he’s made, in particular, all have this signature.  

Usually, for this discourse to happen, Redford needs a recipient, a representative of youth to interact with. This time the honor goes to Shia LaBeouf, who has played an awful lot of "young recipients" in the last few years and seems to have no intention of stopping. Here he plays Ben Shepard, a scruffy reporter for the Albany Sun Times who uncovers the real identity of Jim Grant (Redford), a lawyer and seemingly model citizen. It turns out Grant is actually Nicholas Sloan, a former member of the Weathermen, wanted by the FBI for the murder of a security guard during one of the group’s attacks. The revelation triggers a double quest for the truth that sends Redford and LaBeouf on two parallel strands, one trying to clear his name and go back to his daughter, the other interviewing his way to the core of the group’s past.

Predictably, there is little excitement here. The whole film seems to be an excuse for Redford to do a bit of talking, and discussing, and negotiating. He explores the subject of the actual Weathermen group far less than he deals with the twin themes of legacy and memory. He meets LaBeouf at the start and end of the movie, basically paraphrasing what he told Andrew Garfield's young student in Lion for Lambs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—you have to admire Redford’s trademark benevolent prodding. It’s never too preachy, it’s never absolute. And it always has just the right amount of cheekiness. He excels at telling young kids to get off their arses and pay attention to what’s around them.

Despite his being at the front and center of the movie (it’s interesting he chose to play Nick Sloan, given his dislike of simultaneously acting and directing—a sincere reluctance that transfers to his portrayal of a fugitive, tired, single-dad character), the most impressive feature of The Company You Keep is the roster of supporting players Redford strategically places in Sloan's path. Mostly appearing as Redford’s ex-comrades, the likes of Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Sam Elliot, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Jenkins and Julie Christie all make lasting impressions as worn-out survivors from a different era. Each new encounter provides a different viewpoint on the group’s cause, methods, and struggle, while also making great use of such an abundance of talent to create little sketches of different shades of humanity, from all walks of life.

Enjoyable despite its limitations, The Company You Keep (safely kept away from the Competition here in Venice, yet still given the exposure Redford presumably wanted) is an undoubtedly sincere entry in the director’s gallery of movies devoted to illuminating gray areas of American history. Yes, it’s terribly didactic, but one suspects Redford doesn’t really care, as long as he can have a kid in front of him to nudge towards awareness. Gently.

Tommaso Tocci is an Italian film critic, copywriter and translator. Follow him on Twitter.




I haven’t seen a longer queue for a Venice press screening this year than the one for Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, which premieres today in Competition. It makes sense—the film carried with it the promise of wild excitement, some young American stars who attract a lot of attention (Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson) plus James Franco, who knows a thing or two about attracting attention as well. The sort of loud mainstream baggage the film brought to the Lido was somewhat awkwardly paired with the long-lasting cinephile appeal Korine has garnered with his cultish body of work (Gummo screened here in Venice in 1997, and he has been throwing audiences off balance ever since).

And Spring Breakers certainly did not disappoint, positioning itself in a fascinating dead zone of expectations. Those who came to see the aforementioned young stars partying and making a mess of their college spring break found exactly that—only cranked up to eleven, speeding past darkness to reach a kind of deranged grotesque. On the other hand, those who came for Korine found the director’s trademark themes bathed in glittering softness, apparently downplayed even in the undeniable aesthetic of excess on display here.

Similarly to this year’s intriguing Project X, the beginning of Spring Breakers seems to tap into a form of "alienated awareness," as it confronts the viewer’s gaze with a spirit of defiance. Opening with a prolonged montage of a beach party—naked bodies, hip-hop, alcohol, etc.—Korine knows that context is everything: he takes his time before getting to the story itself, letting a couple of other introductory sequences accumulate to establish a mood and philosophy. This has always been his main asset, after all; he loves spaces, locations that need to be filled, the feeling of emptiness, the collective void.

With its repetition and estrangement, this sharp collage makes it clear that our four girls hate their college life and are staking everything on the upcoming spring break, hoping to somehow alter their entire existence. The problem, though, is money—they don’t have enough to properly enjoy their trip to Florida. Their solution is, of cours,e an armed robbery (a gem of a tracking shot from the outside of a diner, with the action only intermittently visible through the windows), and the fact that this still seems like reasonable thinking on their part says a lot about what comes later in the movie.

Once the girls get to St. Petersburg, it’s suddenly the James Franco show: he plays a gangsta-hustler-dj with golden teeth, tattoos and dreadlocks, too conceptual and on-the-nose to work in any self-respecting movie. Here, though, it’s all part of the meta-grinding fun. And at moments it actually achieves a higher poignancy, transcending this character's joke of an exterior and finding something truly unsettling about him: as in a piano rendition of a Britney Spears ballad framing a slow-mo montage of drug rips, or a painstakingly long enunciation of things he possesses, from guns to perfume, as the ultimate reclamation of individual identity. Listen to him shouting Look at mah shit! and for a moment you’ll spring free from the alienating cage of this film.

This is a director who’s always been great at using ugliness (urban or personal) as a vehicle for meaning. With Spring Breakers he seems to have updated that notion to include the worst degradation of low-brow residue in contemporary American culture. Everything is pink, red, and glossy; Britney Spears is evoked nostalgically and ironically as a lost icon. Teen starlets are used as bait. Gangsta culture is a cartoonish reminiscence. It’s a bit like a farcical distortion of Drive, if that film's references were from ten minutes ago. And yet, for all its uneven pacing and debatable cunningness, Spring Breakers is an energetic and formally daring effort.

Tommaso Tocci is an Italian film critic, copywriter and translator. Follow him on Twitter.




A revolution might not be a dinner party, but its aftermath presents similar problems: someone has to clean up, someone else arrives tragically late, and someone who wasn’t there at all may still want to hold their own the next day. Olivier Assayas, whose last festival appearance was in Cannes in 2010 with Carlos, has now brought to Venice Apres Mai (which literally means "after May" but is internationally titled Something in the Air), looking back to his formative years in 1971 France—when the 70s still looked like the 60s, and a new generation of teenagers was starting to come into its own in a world in which the idea of the revolution was no longer a chimera; in fact, it was an ongoing process.

With his semi-autobiographical focus on the character of Gilles, still in high school but more concerned about painting and politics than class lectures, Assayas strikes an impressive balance between nostalgic understanding and critical assessment of high school students' hopes and aspirations. This young cast of virtually-unknown actors slips with ease into their perfect costumes ("I remember every single shirt," gasped an older critic next to me) as they play characters who are collectively stuck in a very crowded no-man’s land. In many ways, they are the ones truly in contact with the time, having been born into it. And yet their "revolution" is already a second-hand struggle. Those who were there in May ‘68 disagree with their methods, foreshadowing the nasty consequences of one of their raids on police barracks. The older generation remains light-years away.

Instead of applying their own cultural and political education to the revolutionary business, these kids have no choice but to dive into action first, trying to make sense of it only later. Après Mai is punctuated with references, influences, mentions, with allusions ranging from literature to philosophy, from music to cinema—but the winning card up Assayas’ sleeve is the uncanny ability to let these references float softly around the characters, never bringing them to the foreground. You only see them as reflections in their eyes, parts of a confused sentimental education without boundaries.

Where Bertolucci’s The Dreamers was reverent, Après Mai opts for a healthy dose of relativism. Where Garrell’s Les Amants réguliers felt a little one-dimensional, Assayas covers all grounds, moulding characters who are believable when they fight, when they love each other, when they learn, and when they make stupid mistakes. This is not a studious placement of pieces on a board, like Michele Placido’s borderline-offensive Il Grande sogno. There’s no need to assign "functions" to characters in order to correctly recreate a conflicted period.

With its free-flowing narration and gentle directorial style, this strong entry in the Venice Competition has the relaxed confidence its protagonists have, with the ability to be many things at once. It’s about political commitment—Assayas casts his generation’s journey in a melancholic light—just as much as it is about the process of creation. It even finds a way to discuss the necessity of a "revolutionary syntax" in cinema. This is all a bit tongue-in-cheek, but ultimately the movie creates a rich, ambivalent, and heartfelt portrait of a generation who arrived too late at the dinner party and must now decide where to go next.

Tommaso Tocci is an Italian film critic, copywriter and translator. Follow him on Twitter.




A movement from the universal to the particular: that’s what Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder feels like, a year after The Tree of Life. The short period of time that elapsed between the two films—unprecedented in the director’s career—suggests they have much more in common than any of his earlier efforts. Ironically, The Tree of Life's all-encompassing perspective on human relationships, faith and the universe itself could have indicated that the film was a final statement in his career or in his life. Instead, what looked like the end was just another beginning—as so often happens in Malick’s stories—and the guy who once let twenty years pass between his second and third movie is now back on our screens mere months after his fifth movie.

This time the focus is quite different. Set in the present, this story follows the relationship between Neil (Ben Affleck) and Marina (Olga Kurylenko). Neil falls in love with Marina when he is visiting Paris; he subsequently brings her and her daughter to the United States, to live with him in Oklahoma. With little dialogue and the familiar depiction of fleeting moments, voice-overs and natural exploration, the growth and decay of the romance live in the space between each image on screen. We learn that Neil’s feelings are sincere, but somehow his hesitancy prevents him from fully committing to anything in his life. We find out that Marina has her own doubts, that she wants “to be a wife” but is also scarred by a dark past and confused by Neil’s reluctance. Less actually happens here than in other Malick movies, but at the same time this is the purest investigation of love in the director’s career. Two things happen as a result of that investigation.

The first is that we see an amplified emphasis on life in the present moment. Not in the chronological sense, although that has been a factor in Malick’s previous settings, but rather as an enhanced perception of time passing by rapidly, closing doors and making unalterable truths from ambiguity. The Tree of Life grounded its burning questions in the probing of the past, placing a family’s struggle in the context of a millennial journey. To the Wonder has no such frame to wrestle with. “You thought we had forever, that time didn’t exist,” Marina says to Neil at one point. Immediacy is a joy, and a killer. This is the stuff every love relationship is made of, but the Malick treatment—undisturbed by other narrative elements—makes it all the more painful.

The second thing that happens is that a menacing dread looms over the characters. Lead and cadmium poison the earth in Oklahoma. The tide is rising in Mont Saint-Michel. Emmanuel Lubezki’s versatile cinematography can show us numerous scenes, from Tree of Life’s sunny yards to the lunar-surface grayness of this movie. Rarely in Malick’s films has there been an objective correlative like this one. He usually prefers to throw everything together, with no separation to solidify a theme, letting emotion rise from spontaneous contrast. This method is still present here, but it’s joined by a more direct connotation. Not all things are shining, now.

The nature of Affleck and Kurylenko’s romance is reflected in the character of Javier Bardem’s wandering priest – a doubtful soul who’s supposed to comfort others and yet must also acknowledge his unsteady faith. He serves as a link between the lovers' struggle and the more literal spirituality of Malick’s world view—once again, signalling a clear separation of the film's components. Rachel McAdams appears as Neil’s ex-girlfriend, recalling at first Christian Bale’s turn in The New World: filling a void with grace and dignity. Marina is not John Smith, though. She comes and goes, unable to reconcile the two impulses she contains within herself, almost like two different women. One is “full of love” for him; the other “pulls her down towards the earth”.     

Here in Venice, where the film screened in Competition, many are already saying that To the Wonder is just a patchwork of leftovers from The Tree of Life, and that’s harsh, even despite the end-credits confirmation that footage from Malick’s previous film has in fact been used. In a broader, less derogatory sense, these criticisms might also be true. This film feels like a smaller island in the Malick archipelago, more fragmented and full of things we’ve seen before, but also highly permeable and interconnected with the others, almost in dialogue with them. Several actors were cut completely from the finished version of the film, as usual (Rachel Weisz and Jessica Chastain among them), and just as we can imagine their characters alive somewhere in this universe, asking questions to the sky, we can view To The Wonder’s closeness to The Tree of Life as a seamless, frictionless proximity.  

Tommaso Tocci is an Italian film critic, copywriter and translator. Follow him on Twitter.




Long awaited at the Lido, after a prolonged game of cat-and-mouse between the Festival and Harvey Weinstein’s marketing machine, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master has finally been shown.

This is an elusive film, destined to stand out due to its surrounding circumstances. First, the anticipation, five years after 2007's There Will Be Blood; then the will-they-or-won’t-they dance with the Festival before it was announced (separate from other announcements) in the Competition line-up. In the meantime, The Master started popping up at surprise screenings in the United States before turning up in its full 70mm glory—an atypical approach, as was that of Samsara—at the actual Festival.

Expectations were sky-high, like nothing else around here in the past few years. And yet the film itself doesn’t, on its surface, justify that kind of momentum, because it tells the story of a man who is unable to find a sense of purpose. A WWII veteran clumsily forced back into society, Freddie Quell struggles to keep a job, drinks heavy cocktails (which include solvents, pills, and any kind of alcohol he can find), and is prone to angry outbursts. The Navy is not entirely to blame, though, since flashbacks show him in a similar predicament while on duty on the Pacific front. In fact, Joaquin Phoenix’s body and Anderson’s composition make it clear that Freddie and the space he inhabits will always be painfully at odds.

His meeting with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, a self-professed uber-thinker with a group of followers and a desire to find solutions to the world’s problems, quickly ignites another one of the director's trademark relationships involving fatherhood issues, conflicting trajectories, and opposing Weltanschauung. Only this time the dynamic appears to be more subtle. It’s quite obvious why Freddie would jump at the opportunity to follow such a master; Dodd’s grand delusions and clarity of intentions provide Freddie with the purpose he has been desperately seeking. More intriguing is Dodd’s fascination with the man who has entered his life: at first it’s mutual intoxication, as the two swap promises in exchange for the ‘good stuff’ that Freddie’s talent can provide. But Freddie is also an ever-regenerating blank slate onto which Dodd can project his quest, a renewable source of infatuation. A scene showing the two men hugging, shot from the side, demonstrates their dynamic perfectly: as Hoffman’s rotund form lunges into the space of the Other, Phoenix’s torso creates an emptiness to accommodate him.

The subtle dynamic between the two central characters informs the style and the pace of the whole film, making it hard to grasp. The core tension is generated by verbal repeition, as in the "applications" and exercises Dodd subjects his “guinea pig and protegé” to. Anderson replicates this with his use of depth in his shots, locating Phoenix behind elements in the foreground, placing him at odds with gorgeous backgrounds—courtesy of the film’s 70mm crispness and Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography—and generally stripping The Master of structural drive, an element which was crucial to There Will Be Blood. A fitting change, considering that Freddie Quell is the polar opposite of Daniel Plainview. The former is desperate to find a place, even though he doesn’t know how. The latter will stop at nothing to make his place, knowing all too well where to drill and what to hit. Plainview exuded directness, from the center of Anderson’s symmetry. Quell pathologically refuses progress (yet, sooner or later, everybody has to “pick a spot”…) and seems always well-positioned to disrupt those symmetries, starting with the twisted mess that Phoenix turned his face into for the role. Despite the enormous performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and despite the fact that the story is essentially about two men, Anderson cannot help focusing the film on its central character. There Will Be Blood was a radical departure in Anderson’s career; The Master displays similar scope and weight but has a more ambiguous texture.

Tommaso Tocci is an Italian film critic, copywriter and translator. Follow him on Twitter.