Thursday 2 February 2023

FVTL 2023: Burning Hearts / Monica / Amanda

Following on from yesterday's look at From Venice to London titles Chiara and The Matchmaker, today we conclude our coverage of this impressive festival edit by considering the remainder of its selections: Pippo Mezzapesa's Burning Hearts, Andrea Pallaoro's Monica, and Carolina Cavalli's Amanda.  While From Venice to London—which runs from tomorrow until Monday—can only accommodate a limited number of titles, the 2023 lineup presents five very different films, which is testament to the skills of those responsible for programming the festival.  In showcasing a selection of offerings from the Venice Film Festival, FVTL serves to highlight its parent event at a point when La Biennale is still a good seven months away; in this respect, it's much like the interim weekend of screenings laid on by International Film Festival Rotterdam last October.  Tickets for all From Venice to London screenings can be booked by clicking here.  

Italian crime drama Burning Hearts has gained a fair bit of attention in recent months, not least for its casting of pop star Elodie as the female lead.  With an original title of Ti mangio il cuore, which literally translates as "I'll eat your heart", director Pippo Mezzapesa's film has found a considerably less fierce name for its release in Anglophone territories.  This inventive riff on Romeo and Juliet is informed by real events, and Elodie is good value as a woman who becomes romantically involved with a member of a rival crime family; naturally, much feuding and bloodshed ensues.  While Mezzapesa's film is for the most part a serious affair, there is the odd splash of humour: witness the particularly memorable scene in which a brutal gang slaying is soundtracked by noughties Eurodisco smash "Dragostea Din Tei".  Captured in stunning black and white by cinematographer Michele D'Attanasio, Burning Hearts is stylish without being overwrought, and it manages to make its somewhat overfamiliar subject matter both compelling and fresh; moreover, Elodie's fine performance dispels any talk of stunt casting.   

Fans of Andrea Pallaoro's Charlotte Rampling vehicle Hannah—for which the actress netted the Volpi Cup at Venice back in 2017—will surely want to be in the queue for his latest effort, the mature and moving Monica, which stars the always-watchable Patricia Clarkson.  Monica is the second film in Pallaoro's thematic trilogy centring on women, of which Hannah was the first instalment.  As with Charlotte Wells' Aftersun, Monica is a film in which the gap between parent and child looms large, as its title character returns home after a long absence to visit her dying, estranged mother.  For more than one reason, the mother—played by Clarkson—fails to recognise her child, but Monica nevertheless sticks around to help, in the process reconnecting with her brother and forming a bond with his young family.  By an extraordinary coincidence, Pallaoro's film also uses "Dragostea Din Tei" to soundtrack a key scene, and it isn't the only well-chosen song to be featured here, with classic tracks from New Order and OMD also used to fine effect.  Boxing its characters into a 1:1 aspect ratio, Monica proceeds at a deliberate pace as Pallaoro consistently veers away from spelling things out for his audience, preferring instead to focus on what is left unsaid.  

Carolina Cavalli's endearingly quirky debut feature Amanda, like the title character in Susanna Nicchiarelli's medieval tale Chiara, is bound to attract more than a few devoted followers; coincidentally, Amanda's star, Benedetta Porcaroli, shot to fame playing a character called Chiara in Netflix series Baby.  Porcaroli's Amanda, just like her Chiara, is an entitled young woman from a wealthy family, yet despite her privileged background she drifts along as a lonely, disaffected twentysomething.  Amanda's main goals are to rekindle a particular childhood friendship (that may or may not have existed) and accrue sufficient supermarket reward points to claim an electric fan; she also frequents the cinema, and opts to live in a dingy hotel room that is a far cry from her palatial family home.  While the film is consistently amusing, it never loses sight of the poignancy at its core as Amanda searches for her place in what she views as a hostile, confusing world.  Porcaroli gives a terrific performance, and she's matched all the way by the superb Galatéa Bellugi, who stood out in 2021's starry divertissement Tralala.  Cavalli's bittersweet film is a fine choice to close this year's From Venice to London, and it announces its writer-director as a real talent.      

Darren Arnold

Wednesday 1 February 2023

From Venice to London 2023: Chiara / The Matchmaker

Festival edit From Venice to London—which runs from Friday until Monday—takes a selection of titles from the Venice Film Festival and showcases them in London's Curzon Soho (click here for tickets).  This special season includes five films which played at the 79th edition of the world's oldest film festival, with all titles presented as UK premieres.  The first From Venice to London—which took place in late 2021—featured the likes of Paolo Sorrentino's The Hand of God and Maggie Gyllenhaal's The Lost Daughter, and the lineup for this second edition includes an equally impressive clutch of titles, one of which is Susanna Nicchiarelli's Chiara.  Incidentally, Chiara is one of three films in the festival with a woman's name as its title—the other two being Carolina Cavalli's Amanda and Andrea Pallaoro's Monica; From Venice to London 2023 is rounded out by Benedetta Argentieri's documentary The Matchmaker and Pippo Mezzapesa's Burning Hearts.

Like Nicchiarelli's fine 2017 film Nico, 1988 and her follow-up feature Miss MarxChiara is both a biopic and a Belgian co-production; also as with the two earlier films, Chiara sees Nicchiarelli draw a knockout performance from the actress playing the title character, with My Brilliant Friend star Margherita Mazzucco delivering a mesmerising turn as the eponymous Italian saint.  Chiara charts the life of Clare (Chiara) of Assisi, follower of the substantially more famous Francis of Assisi and founder of the religious order we now know as the Poor Clares.  As far as anyone knows, Clare was the first woman to write a set of monastic guidelines, and her egalitarian nature is very much at the forefront of Nicchiarelli's film.  It's a strange, beguiling work, one which recalls Bruno Dumont's Jeannette as the religious austerity that is the film's stock-in-trade is punctuated by the occasional musical number.  While not without humour, Chiara leans away from the kind of tropes familiar from other, more excitable films detailing cloistered life, such as Paul Verhoeven's Benedetta and Ken Russell's The Devils, and is all the better for it.

Behaviour that is light years away from Chiara's saintly conduct is dissected in Argentieri's absorbing The Matchmaker, which attempts to fathom the strange case of young student Tooba Gondal.  In 2015, Gondal left London to join ISIS in Syria, from where she allegedly worked on persuading Western women to marry jihadist fighters.  Argentieri's film begins in 2019 with Kurdish-led coalition troops completing the rout of ISIS, a development which led to thousands of women and children being detained in refugee camps—such as the one on the outskirts of the Syrian town of Ayn Issa, which is where the filmmaker finds Gondal and her two infant children.  Most of the film takes place in this camp, where Argentieri observes Gondal's daily routine and quizzes her subject on the events of the previous few years.  Gondal is quite happy to answer these questions, and she comes across as affable and repentant—but it is hard to reconcile this person with the one who, inter alia, rejoiced in the aftermath of the Paris Bataclan attacks.  The film frequently highlights Gondal's highly incriminating social media past, and it is left to the viewer to decide if The Matchmaker's subject has fully turned her back on extremism; as with all good documentaries, Benedetta Argentieri's film is certain to spark debate.   

Darren Arnold