Cinema Paradiso

At Venice Film Fest, Suicide, Mafia and Mountain Climbing

A not-quite-dead Michel Houellebecq in "Near Death Experience." Source: Ad Vitam
A not-quite-dead Michel Houellebecq in "Near Death Experience."
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Venice is the oldest film festival in the world. Alongside Cannes and Berlin, it is one of Europe’s most prestigious competitions.

  • Facts


    • “The State-Mafia Pact” is an Italian documentary about political corruption.
    • Swedish director Roy Andersson’s new film has draw comparisons to Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki.
    • “Near Death Experience” is based on a Michel Houellebecq novel.
  • Audio


  • Pdf

Evidence disappears, confessions are extorted, principal witnesses are shot, investigators bombed — it’s hard to keep up.

The Italian film maker Sabina Guzzanti studied countless court files detailing the connection between the Mafia and the Italian government for her documentary “The State-Mafia Pact.”

Uncovering the deals made between politicians and organized crime, the film meticulously reports circumstantial evidence for the Mafia-controlled rise of Forza Italia after the murder of the judges Falcone and Borsellino in the ’90’s.

Italy’s disgraced former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, depicted as a creature of the Cosa Nostra.

The deal went: the more power, the fewer murders.

The film, which was viewed at the 71st Venice Film Festival, but is not in competition, features archive material, sometimes anonymously conducted interviews, and staged scenes of interrogations and secret negotiations, of which each sentence has been documented.

At its screening, the press corps offered long applause. The director Ms. Guzzanti belongs to one of the few fearless citizens in her country.

Maybe her films are overloaded with information because the Italian public otherwise learns hardly anything about the structural connections between politics, the economy and the mafia.

In “Draquila,” her lampoon against the corruption involved in the crisis management after the earthquake in L’Aquila, Ms. Guzzanti chose to use farce as her framework. In “The State-Mafia Pact,” she let the facts speak for themselves.

It is not that Italians keep silent on the topic of the Mafia. It is just accepted as a force of nature, as something which cannot be changed.

Those who ask about the construction scandal in Venice on the narrow strip of land called the Lido, about the giant hole instead of a new festival palace, about the dilapidated Hotel des Bains and the empty Ospedale al Mare, get a shrug in return.


A close shave with the Godfather: “The State-Mafia Pact” at this year’s Venice Film Festival. Source: MAILA IACOVELLI – FABIO ZAYED/FESTIVAL


But Italy doesn’t have great chances in the film festival’s competition. Francesco Munzi’s Calabrian drama “Anime Nere”(“Black Souls”) is yet another Calabrian vendetta and Mafiosi-make-good-fathers story. Mario Martone’s “Il Giovane Favoloso” (“The Fabulous Young Man”) is a straight costume drama about the poet Giacomo Leopardi.

And Alba Rohrwacher is irritating in Saverio Costanzo’s New York film “Hungry Hearts” as a young mother who almost lets her baby starve to death out of fear of the harmful world.

Does Italy only have the choice between defeatism and fatalism? “Italy in a Day”creates a different picture. The project, which is not in competition, is loosely based on Ridley Scott’s production “Life in a Day” from 2011.

The director Gabriele Salvatore asked Italians to send in videos from October 26, 2013, and he promptly received 44,197 entries.

Mr. Salvatore filtered 75 minutes out of those, and created a patchwork of survival in daily life, a manifest of the collective unconsciousness, of the longings, fights and solitude of Italians.

They are mostly simple folk, school children, people from the country, from small towns, the middle class, more than 600 “directors.”

Roy Andersson has a film in competition that is a philosophical farce, a collage of laconic sketches, as if Aki Kaurismäki had directed the Muppets.

They declare their love and propose marriage in front of cameras, film the births of sons, and record the senile mother who no longer knows how many children she has.

They draw attention to their anger over unemployment, their pain over failed marriages, the mountains of garbage on the side of the street, the beauty of the moment and humor in and of itself. It is the pulse of a nation.

It’s hard to find so much love of life and resilience at the movies. “Italy in a Day” is a film about happiness and the fragility of that happiness under undignified living conditions.

Each Italian politician should see it in order to know what problems it conveys. Our country is going to the dogs, the young people say. But there is no reason to sit idly by and watch it.

Sweden, so it seems, went to the dogs long ago. Roy Andersson has a film in competition that is a philosophical farce, a collage of laconic sketches, as if Aki Kaurismäki had directed the Muppets. Depression is not an expression.

The people operate in slow motion, they are zombies with wan faces who undertake absurd conversations. Two sad clowns sell joke items that no one wants.

That’s sort of how watching Mr. Andersson’s film eventually feels. But the it still has the best title this year in Venice: “A Pidgeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.”

How about a man who climbs a mountain to reflect on his own existence? The “Orrizonti”section presents a Nietzschean excursion, a low-budget video of the amusing kind.

In “Near Death Experience” from Benoit Delépine and Gustave Kervern, Michel Houellebecq plays a call center employee who is burned out, and with his long legs in a cyclist’s outfit scales to the top of a mountain plateau in Provence in order to take his life back.

He only simulates a jump over the edge. He talks to himself about the meaning of life, builds three pyramids out of stones — his wife and the children — and tells them what he always wanted to say.

Mr. Houellebecq’s death soliloquy is filled with a love for the oddities of life. The author, who stunned audiences at the Berlinale with his black comedy “The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq”as a disarming self-promoter, is becoming more similar to the surrealist films of Germany’s Herbert Achternbusch.

Italy is submitting its final film for competition today. “Pasolini,”from Abel Ferrara, is about another murder, another mystery. The director claims to know who really killed Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini in 1975.

This story first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. It was translated by Mary Beth Warner. To contact the author:

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!