Argentine satire lightens up Venice fest; Gyllenhaal picks Ferrante for directing debut

VENICE — The Venice Film Festival got a break from its anguish-filled line-up with Saturday’s premiere of Official Competition, a behind-the-curtains Argentine satire about film-making that had the audience laughing out loud.

In it, an 80-year-old billionaire businessman in search of social prestige decides to make a movie to leave his mark. To fulfil his ambition, he hires the best: maverick director Lola Cuevas, played by Penelope Cruz, and two actors with big talent but even bigger egos.

One is a Hollywood star, played by Antonio Banderas. The other, played by Argentine actor Oscar Martinez, is a high-brow theater purist, with radical views about celebrity and commercial entertainment. From the get-go, the two are on a collision course, and the director’s eccentric methods for immersing them in character only add to the tension, making for some farcical scenes. To elicit fear, they are made to rehearse while sitting beneath a precariously suspended boulder. In another scene, the pair are cling-wrapped together for bonding.

Argentine directors Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn said they wanted to show what happens on set and the tactics actors with different backgrounds use to prepare for rehearsals.

Speaking to reporters after a press screening at the Venice movie showcase, where Official Competition is vying for the top Golden Lion award, they said inspiration had come from the personal experiences of their own cast.

Mr. Banderas said he once worked opposite an actor who would bellow before a scene. “The first time he did it, I thought it was a cow,” he said.

He added that it had been refreshing to make a funny movie at a time when “laughing seems to be forbidden”: a reference to the global gloom from the coronavirus pandemic.

The film explores universal themes and emotions, such as envy, under-confidence, competition between professionals and people’s relationship with success, he said.

Ms. Cruz, who also stars in another competition film in Venice — Pedro Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers — said it was liberating to interpret Lola, whom she described as smart but a bit of a “psychopath.” “It was somehow a tribute to our profession,” she said. 

Maggie Gyllenhaal picked an unconventional novel about motherhood for her debut as a director in The Lost Daughter, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival on Friday.

In the film, Olivia Colman plays Leda, a middle-aged British literature professor vacationing on her own in Greece who becomes transfixed with a young mother (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter on the same beach. Watching them makes Leda dwell on her own emotional conflicts as the mother of two young daughters years before and the guilt-ridden decisions she made to be able to live her life.

The script is adapted from the eponymous 2006 book by Elena Ferrante — a pseudonym of the notoriously secretive Italian author best known for her Neapolitan novels with whom Ms. Gyllenhaal only corresponded by letter. Ms. Gyllenhaal said that at first when she read the book, she thought the protagonist was mentally damaged but then realized how she could relate to her.

“I realized that many people have this experience and nobody talks about it. These are secret truths about a feminine experience,” she told reporters after a press screening. “I think that I would be really shocked to hear that there was one mother who hadn’t once thought, what if I walked out the door?”

Making the movie was an epiphany for the Oscar nominated actress, who comes from a family of film makers and is married to fellow US actor Peter Sarsgaard, who also stars in the film.

“I think I’ve always been a director and I just didn’t feel entitled to admit it to myself,” she said. “I think it’s a better job for me actually.”

Ms. Colman said she had relished the prospect of playing someone who at times does something awful. “All people want to be one person, turns out they’re not that person and they’re probably someone else,” she said. “It was intriguing to play a character who does something that I wouldn’t do, although you do sometimes think about it.”

The Lost Daughter is one of the 21 films vying for the Golden Lion top award at the Venice festival, which runs through Sept. 11. —  Reuters

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