There is a moment that happens every time I am lucky enough to attend the Venice International Film Festival, just before it all begins, when overloaded screening schedules still seem perfectly doable, and deadlines are distant and abstract, almost pretty, like far-off flocks of birds. Freewheeling down the Lido (the barrier island in the Venetian lagoon where the festival takes place) on a newly rented bike, the weather reliably gorgeous, the breeze warm and the tiniest bit savory with centuries of sea-salted history, I think I am more predictably, straightforwardly happy than on any other day of the year.
Regular attendees know to be slightly conspiratorial about Venice, to keep a little of its magic secret in case the universe realizes there’s been a clerical error and it gets taken away from us. Because even in a normal year — and who knows if we will ever have one of those again? — this festival is a rare privilege that surely no one really deserves. And in pandemic times, whatever the inconveniences of Covid restrictions, a noticeably increased, surly carabinieri presence and a glitchy, restrictive online reservation system, it’s little less than miraculous that we were here again, amid all this loveliness and lagoon-sparkling light, which we got to completely ignore for 10 days spent in the lambent dark.
But then this year, the festival’s 78th, right from the start, the darkness was full of life. Pedro Almodóvar’s opener, “Parallel Mothers,” came like a comet, bursting from the screen in a blaze of unabashed melodrama so bold it practically blasted the mask clean off my face — though do not fear, had that actually happened, one of the ushers would have been on me in an instant. Mask-wearing was one of the most assiduously policed protocols; even mid-row offenders were publicly shamed by being immediately targeted with a red laser pointer, which must have felt like being in the sights of a sniper.
“Parallel Mothers” stars Penélope Cruz in a performance that deserved the best actress award she won here. She plays a woman who bonds with her young, frightened roommate (Milena Smit) in a maternity ward, and then discovers they are more inextricably linked than she could have imagined. It is messy and overblown, soap-operatic in its many twists and revelations, and ultimately magnificent. Even though I am among the few fortunate enough to have attended festivals around Europe more or less continuously since Cannes, I saw in Almodóvar’s expansive, generous, heart-on-sleeve vision something that had been missing elsewhere — a cinematic experience that is brash and warm, that contains more dimensions of vigor than the laws of physics allow to be conveyed by a flat image. Glorying in Cruz’s fantastic, funny, earthy performance — notes that only Almodóvar ever seems to find in an actress often typecast as a kittenish sex object — and in the director’s own eccentric, unmistakable style, I levitated through “Parallel Mothers” thinking: this, this, this.
Which was good, because Almodóvar’s film introduced the theme of fraught motherhood which soon became a recurring feature. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s superb, best screenplay-winning directorial debut, “The Lost Daughter,” based on a novel by Elena Ferrante, stars an irreplaceable Olivia Colman as Leda, the middle-aged mother of grown-up children, who, like Cruz’s character in “Parallel Mothers,” sees connections between her life and that of a younger woman (Dakota Johnson). With Leda played in an earlier time frame by Jessie Buckley, Gyllenhaal’s frighteningly accomplished first film actually gives us two intricate performances of the same character, and though the actresses do not physically resemble each other, there is something deeply persuasive in the dovetailing continuity of gesture and body language that Colman and Buckley achieve. And you do not have to be a mother — or even a woman — to relate to Leda’s contradictions, and to find unsettling recognition in a sly tale of painful — from some angles monstrously selfish — decisions that induce everlasting guilt but that can never be wholly regretted.
Speaking of which, “Spencer,” Pablo Larraín’s divisive, highly stylized take on three days in the life of Diana, Princess of Wales just before her official split from Prince Charles, gave us another unforgettable portrait of conflicted womanhood, and another unforgettably inspired piece of casting in Kristen Stewart. Stewart’s own prickly relationship to celebrity provides a fascinating metatextual layer to this highly irregular biopic in which, a little as he did with Jackie Kennedy in “Jackie,” Larraín splinters the conventions of the genre into a million pieces that glitter like the oppressively opulent chandeliers of Sandringham House — the film’s location, here a place as uncannily unwelcoming as the Overlook Hotel.
Audrey Diwan’s “Happening” — the lower-profile competition entry unexpectedly and gratifyingly selected by Bong Joon Ho’s jury as the Golden Lion winner — is the harrowing yet delicate story of a young Frenchwoman (an outstanding Anamaria Vartolomei) dealing with the taboo of an unwanted pregnancy in 1963. Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” which brought her the Silver Lion for best director, is ostensibly the story of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil, a charismatic rancher, and a sexually conflicted bully. But it, too, pivots on a troubled mother, here a restrained, immaculate Kirsten Dunst, and her strangely codependent relationship with her doted-on son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Even in the competition’s most overtly genre-influenced entry, Ana Lily Amirpour’s fun, graphic-novel-esque “Mona Lisa and Blood Moon,” Kate Hudson plays wildly and successfully against type in her role as a grifting stripper, who is also an admittedly “bad mother” to her self-reliant but lonely young son (an endearing Evan Whitten).
There were, of course, films that centralized the experiences of men: most notably, for those who view Venice as a proving ground for Academy Award contenders, Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Hand of God,” a film you do not have to care much for to recognize as the kind of lavish, lovingly made, autobiographical nostalgia trip that will undoubtedly become an international hit. More to my taste, if definitely less accessible, were Valentyn Vasyanovych’s terrific “Reflection,” a challenging — particularly in its trigger-warning-worthy torture scenes — tableau-based tale of a Ukrainian father coming back from a shattering stint in enemy captivity; the Filipino filmmaker Erik Matti’s sprawling, uneven but gripping corruption and journalism procedural “On the Job: The Missing 8”; and a compelling, subdued offering from the Venezuelan Golden Lion winner Lorenzo Vigas, “The Box,” which details a truculent teenager’s sudden entry into violent adulthood when he attaches himself to the ruthless stranger he believes to be his father.
Even so, as evidenced by an awards lineup that featured three female directors (Diwan, Campion and Gyllenhaal) getting major behind-camera prizes, when there were only five overall in the competition’s 21 titles, it’s quite striking how heavily weighted this Venice felt toward women and women’s stories. And, maybe because of the necessary compromises of this year’s festival format that have made last-minute discoveries based on strolling into a screening you just heard about over an Aperol spritz a thing of the past, such themes had to be unmistakably pronounced to connect.
Carefully spaced out in our assigned seats, unable, because of the advance booking mandate, to enjoy the more spontaneous, buzz-based cinematic pleasures offered in the Before Times, watching trapped characters — often women — whose stories were told less through action than through the complex psychologies that played across their faces in close-up, at Venice 2021, it sometimes felt like we were islands, watching islands, on an island. But if we weren’t as fully mingled together on this little strip of beachy land as we have been in the past, and if we have to get used to maybe not being so again in the near future, we were at least islands linked to one other under the light of the same projector beam. Venice is, after all, an archipelago.