Villeneuve: Dune (2021) | featured image
Timothée Chalamet in Dune (2021) | IMDB

Venice Film Festival 2021: Films to Watch

Competition at Venice Film Festival 2021 will be fierce, with many of the world’s most renowned auteurs vying for the Volpi Cup and/or early Oscars buzz.

Venice Film Festival 2021
La Biennale di Venezia
1-11 September 2021

After 2020’s low-key event due to the COVID pandemic, this year’s La Biennale returns in full force –and the lineup will have heads turning

The 78th edition of one of the world’s largest film festivals, running 1-11 September, will host the world premiere of 73 feature films, 18 shorts, and one television miniseries (HBO’s Scenes from a Marriage). As is customary for an event of this calibre, the competition and showcasing will be fierce, with many of the world’s most renowned auteurs vying for the Volpi Cup and/or early Oscars buzz. 

Of the dozens of blue-chip novelties, almost certainly the majority of the films will be well worth the attention from the industry, but some have created such hype and expectations that they are impossible to ignore. Following is the list of films we believe will cause a massive stir.

Madres paralelas – Pedro Almodóvar

Madres paralelas (2021) | poster excerpt

Almodóvar’s latest has been selected as the event’s opening film. The story of two expecting mothers, played by Almodóvar’s muse Penélope Cruz and newcomer Milena Smit, unfolds in a maternity ward where the two women meet and grow closer as they traverse the corridors of the facility. This is followed by the first two years of their children’s lives, when the two mothers raised them–in parallel.

The women, generations apart, have a wildly different reaction to their pregnancies. Janis, in her 40s, is ecstatic to finally get a chance at maternity. In the press release, she is described as “a uniquely complex, flawed, but ultimately alluring lead character, who finds herself in a morally and emotionally treacherous situation. She’s viewed in contrast with Ana, radiantly portrayed by newcomer Milena Smit, a discovery who brings a palpable innocence, pain, and longing to this interwoven portrait of women and motherhood.”

The Spanish auteur, who in 2019 received a Lifetime Achievement award in Venice, has a long-standing relationship with the festival and it’s no surprise his 23rd release will be one of the more publicized films on Lido. As with all his other films, Madres paralelas promises plenty of heartfelt existential melodrama and life lessons from the ordinary people Hollywood habitually overlooks. 

The Last Duel – Ridley Scott

Matt Damon in The Last Duel (2021) | IMDB

Screening Out of Competition, Scott’s newest is among the most awaited films. The Last Duel took years to make, with Hollywood papers reporting on “every studio’s” desire to produce it. Always the one to relentlessly dive into exploring the dark sides of manhood (and occasionally womanhood, we know), Scott, who engaged Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (also starring) to write the script with Martin Scorcese’s student Nicole Holofcener, gives us a tale of rape and some dark and vile men. 

(Mostly) a true story, The Last Duel is based on The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France by Eric Jager. Set in the 14th century, the last legally sanctioned duel in France’s history took place when Margueritte de Thibouville (Jodie Comer) claimed to have been raped by her husband’s friend. The husband, knight Jean de Carrouges (Damon) then challenged his lifelong friend and squire, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), to trial by combat. While the trailer appears to be adequately grim for the said subject matter, in real life, the trial was surrounded by an incredible amount of controversy and celebrity (nobility) interest.

The film is expected to be a Hollywood breakthrough vehicle for the phenomenal Comer, who rose to international prominence by playing Villanelle in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s television series, Killing Eve. Ben Affleck also stars as Count Pierre d’Alençon.

It was heavily rumored that Scott’s other massive 2021 release, House of Gucci, would see the light of day in Venice as well, but this has since been denied. 

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon – Ana Lily Amirpour

Joen Jong-seo in Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon (2021) | IMDB

Though this is only her third feature, the American-Iranian director has been on the radar since her 2014 debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Focusing on intriguing female leads, often lost in highly stylized, violent, and bizarre worlds they don’t belong in, Amirpour has been hailed as the next Tarantino, with a taste for cultural mixing and versatile narrative perspectives.

Described as the “first Iranian vampire western”, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night picked up buzz immediately after its premiere at 2014 Sundance 2014; its follow-up, 2016’s The Bad Batch, which debuted in Venice, received the Special Jury Prize. An extremely violent, post-apocalyptic “cannibal love story”, the film starred Jason Momoa, Suki Waterhouse, and Keanu Reeves, and opened many doors for the then 35-year-old Armipour, despite mixed reviews from critics. 

Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, starring Kate Hudson, continues Armipour’s aesthetic in the same vein, following a young escapee from an asylum (played by Jeon Jong Seo) who, with her special abilities, wanders the streets of New Orleans, meeting plenty of interesting characters on the way. This year Amirpour will be competing for the festival’s grand prize.

The Power of the Dog – Jane Campion

Jude Law in The Power of the Dog (2021) | IMDB

Campion has been out of the public eye for some time; her last feature, 2009’s Bright Star, was followed only by a 2013-2017 return to television with the outstanding miniseries Top of the Lake. Now, the 1997 Venice Jury President returns in full force, with another film on the civilizational qualms of women under patriarchy. Never the one to shy away from genre diversity, Campion now adapts a 1967 Western novel by Thomas Savage, detailing the dismal life of a widowed woman who moves to a ranch after marrying the brother of the ranch owner.

The famed director brings plenty of star power to her reels, with Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Jesse Plemons taking lead roles. Cumberbatch plays Phil Burbank, a taciturn, magniloquent, and sadistic owner of the biggest ranch in Montana valley, who shares a primal bond with his brother, George, a kind and caring, but withdrawn and slow man. When George unexpectedly marries a local widow, Rose, who moves to the ranch with him, Phil sets out to destroy her life in cruel and unusual ways. 

Cumberbatch, most noted for his more benevolent roles, seems like the perfect fit for the subduedly maniacal Phil, with the traditionally reliable Plemons and Dunst expected to suitably counter him.

Spencer – Pablo Larraín

Kristen Stewart in Spencer (2021) | IMDB

Chile’s Pablo Larraín is among the most interesting contemporary directors whose work the average viewer may not know. Setting himself up for international success since his 2006 debut film Fuga, Larraín is particularly celebrated for his intimate character studies of people whose lives unravel under the weight of sociohistorical phenomena. His work includes the “unintentional Pinochet trilogy” of films detailing the lives of a–watch out now–serial killer obsessed with John Travolta, a coroner’s assistant, and an advertising executive who ran the 1988 “No” campaign. That campaign ultimately voted Pinochet out of power. Providing portraits of historical figures such as Pablo Neruda and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Larraín centers heavily on his protagonists.

Spencer is no exception. Starring Kristen Stewart, Timothy Spall, and Sally Hawkins, it tells the story of Princess Diana and one weekend in  Norfolk, when she decided to end her unhappy marriage to Prince Charles. Spencer is far from the first cinematic release to document at least some of the issues of the British royal family, and after Stephen Frears’ 2006 The Queen and Peter Morgan’s series The Crown (2016) it has some weighty shoes to fill, but if Jackie is any indication, Larraín will capture the essence of Diana’s elusive character.

La Caja – Lorenzo Vigas  

Hatzín Navarrete in La Caja (2021) | IMDB

Venezuela’s Vigas is on paper credited with just one short film, Los elefantes nunca olvidan (Elephants Never Forget, 2014) and one feature, Desde allá (From Afar, 2015), but both are so lauded, he actually won the Venice grand prize for his feature debut. Only 13 minutes long, Elephants Never Forget still cuts quick and deep with a poignant story about a boy with a gun seeking revenge against his father. From Afar is about a wealthy, middle-aged Venezuelan man who becomes involved with a teenager from a street gang.

Now, La Caja (The Box) completes a trilogy of cross-generational trauma in Latin America with a story of Hatzín, a teenager who travels to the notorious Ciudad Juárez in Northern Mexico to collect the remains of his father from a communal grave. On the way, he will meet a stranger who resembles his father and will make him doubt his father’s fate. The narrative further complicates when Hatzín’s story intertwines with that of the low-cost assembly plants, Maquiladoras, from which more than 20,000 women have gone missing under suspicious circumstances in the past ten years alone. 

Vigas, who is committed to recounting this scandalously overlooked societal phenomena from Latin America, stays true to his craft and doesn’t tiptoe around difficult subjects. He explores unsanctioned violence as means of survival, the exploitation of the working class, and criminal activity so deeply ingrained in the fabric of society that it seems impossible to eradicate. Judging by the interest many arthouse productions have expressed in La Caja (the rights for the international distribution were acquired by Germany’s preeminent outlet, The Match Factory), Vigas’ film is all but guaranteed to make plenty of noise this awards season.

The Lost Daughter – Maggie Gyllenhaal

Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter (2021) | IMDB

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut pushes the famous actor immediately into some deep water with this adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s difficult novel about female obsession and relationships. Olivia Colman plays Leda, a 47-year-old English Professor and a divorcee on vacation in Italy on her own, for the first time in many years. On the surface, Leda enjoys being away from her grown daughters, who have gone to stay with their father. But a seemingly trivial occurrence will push her into reexamining her life, the notion of motherhood, and everything she sacrificed for her children. 

Ferrante’s novels, fiercely beloved by women all over the world, have always invited ecranization, and Colman will almost certainly be a hotly-tipped award’s candidate as the complex, neurotic and pensive Leda. Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, and Jesse Buckley also star. 

Dune – Denis Villeneuve

You’ve heard about this one. You know all about it. You’ve been impatiently waiting through the delays. You’ve been wondering why David Lynch’s film screwed up the story so badly, or maybe you haven’t, but you’ve definitely tried to imagine what Dune would look like seen through the eyes of a true sci-fi epic visionary such as Denis Villeneuve–with an unlimited budget. 

Fret no more, the wait is over. There is nothing I can tell you about Dune that you don’t already know. Let’s just hope the ever-ingenious and inventive Villeneuve will deliver something more than just an adequate, good-looking adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal series. The cast, led by Timothee Chalamet, Zendaya, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Stellan Skarsgaard, Josh Brolin, and more, will certainly be up to the task (and then some, what a bunch). Whether the fans or newcomers will warm up to Villeneuve’s vision or not, we will find out soon enough.