French abortion film wins female-focused Venice Film Festival

A timely film about illegal abortions in 1960s France won the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion on Saturday, capping a festival featuring numerous female-focused themes.

French abortion film wins female-focused Venice Film Festival
French director Audrey Diwan poses with the Golden Lion for Best Film she received for "L'Evenement" (Happening) at the 78th Venice Film Festival. Photo: Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Audrey Diwan’s “Happening” arrives just as the abortion debate is raging again after new restrictions in Texas, and with the ‘Me Too’ movement starting to make its mark in the film industry.

“I did this movie with anger, with desire, with my belly, my guts, my heart and my head,” said Diwan, accepting the top prize for her delicately rendered, yet gut-punching drama.

In a strong night for women filmmakers, best director went to iconic New Zealand auteur Jane Campion for her emotionally complex Western “The Power of the Dog”, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

And the best screenplay award went to Maggie Gyllenhaal for her directorial debut “The Lost Daughter”, an unflinching look at the difficulties of balancing career and motherhood starring British Oscar-winner Olivia Colman.

It was a strong finish for the glitzy festival on Venice’s beachfront Lido, which roared back to life this year after a low-key event in 2020 due to the pandemic, with stars back in force and a strong line-up of international films.

The second-place Silver Lion went to beloved Italian director Paolo Sorrentino for his strikingly personal “The Hand of God” about his youth in the gritty southern city of Naples, which also earned the newcomer award for young star Filippo Scotti.

But it was hard to ignore the gender theme across many films.

The festival closed with “The Last Duel”, playing out of competition, a medieval jousting drama starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck that went heavy on its message of historical injustice towards women.

“I think any reasonable humane, empathetic, conscionable person would have to be a feminist,” Affleck told AFP in an interview.

Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho”, meanwhile, turned the misogyny of Swinging Sixties London into a slasher horror flick.

One woman who seems destined to grab the headlines in the coming months is Kristen Stewart, who wowed critics with her turn as Princess Diana in “Spencer”.

But it was Spanish megastar Penelope Cruz who took home the best actress award in Venice for her latest collaboration with veteran auteur Pedro Almodovar.

“Parallel Mothers” is a surprisingly political turn for the flamboyant filmmaker, exploring the trauma of the 1930s Spanish civil war alongside the tale of two mothers sharing a maternity ward.

Cruz had a busy festival, also starring alongside Antonio Banderas as egomaniacal filmmakers in “Official Competition”, which mercilessly ripped into their own profession.

The best actor award was less expected, going to Philippines star John Arcilla for crime thriller “On the Job: The Missing 8”.

The Golden Lion was selected by a jury led by “Parasite” director Bong Joon-Ho and presented at the Saturday night closing ceremony.

Success at Venice has become a key launchpad for Academy Award campaigns in recent years.

The last four winners — “Nomadland”, “Joker”, “Roma” and “The Shape of Water” — have all gone on to Oscar success.

The glamour was certainly back this year, with a dazzling Hollywood guest list capped by the appearance of Affleck with his old/new girlfriend Jennifer Lopez to the delight of gossip mags everywhere.

Pandemic precautions including mandatory masks, vaccine passes and 50-percent capacity in the cinemas,, continued to dull some of the shine at this year’s festival.

Timothee Chalamet — in town to promote mega-blockbuster “Dune” – had to leap up the new Covid-security wall separating the public from the red carpet to give his adoring teen fans a bit of face time.

But with “Dune” bringing an army of stars to the Lido island — including Zendaya, Oscar Isaac and Javier Bardem — it seemed to confirm that the festival circuit was back on glitzy form.

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Cuaron’s Mexican ‘masterpiece’ wins Venice film festival

Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron won the Golden Lion top prize at the Venice film festival Saturday for "Roma", which critics called not merely a movie but "a vision".

Cuaron's Mexican 'masterpiece' wins Venice film festival
Director Alfonso Cuaron poses with the Golden Lion award he received for Best Film for the movie "Roma" on Saturday. Photo: Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP
With its highly emotional story centred on an indigenous maid working for a middle-class family in Mexico City in 1971, it has been hailed as Cuaron's most personal film — and also his best.
Cuaron told reporters that in an incredible coincidence “today is the birthday of Libo, the woman the movie is based on. What a present!”
The film industry bible Variety said “Roma” is likely to go down as a “masterpiece”.
“It is no mere movie — it's a vision… where every image and every emotion is perfectly set in place,” said critic Owen Gleiberman.
Cuaron “dunks us, moment by moment, image by luminously composed image, into a panorama of the hurly-burly of Mexico City.”
The Italian press declared it “sublime” while for The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw it was a “complete triumph”. 
Venice has become the launchpad for the Oscars race with Hollywood heavyweights jostling for attention in a line-up director Alberto Barbera called “the best in 30 years”.
 Vintage year
Cuaron, 56, reconstructed his childhood home for the Netflix-backed film, borrowing furniture back from relatives to recreate how it was when he was 10. But the heart of the film is the “luminous” performance of first-time actor Yalitza Aparicio, who plays Cleo, a young live-in maid of Mixteco heritage who looked after the director as a boy.
“Cleo is based on my babysitter when I was young. We were a family together,” Cuaron told AFP. “But when you grow up with someone you love you don't discuss their identity. So for this film I was forced to see myself as this woman, a member of the lower classes, from the indigenous population. This is a point of view I had never had before.”
The second prize Silver Lion went to France's Jacques Audiard for his hugely enjoyable Western “The Sisters Brothers” starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C Reilly. Another Wild West tale, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” by the Coen 
brothers, won best script.
Having missed out on an Oscar last year, Willem Dafoe took best actor for his acclaimed portrait of the painter Vincent Van Gogh in “At Eternity's Gate”. Britain's Olivia Colman took best actress for playing the needy and weak-minded Queen Anne in “The Favourite”, a viciously funny and apparently accurate historical drama about two powerful women competing for her favour.
Colman, 44, who is playing Britain's present monarch in the television series “The Crown”, said she “loved every second” of playing her 18th-century predecessor, “even if none of us knows what it is like to be a queen”.
The film's Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos of “The Lobster” fame won the Grand Jury Prize. 
It was one of several movies with strong female stories vying for the Golden Lion — with all three of its leading actresses tipped as Oscar contenders.
Even so the organisers were lambasted for choosing only one female director among the 21 competing for the top prize for the second year in a row. Australian director Jennifer Kent did however win the special jury prize for “The Nightingale”, her stirring story of revenge and friendship involving an Irish convict woman and an Aboriginal tracker in colonial Tasmania.
By AFP's Fiachra Gibbons