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‘The Shape of Water’ Takes Top Venice Film Festival Prize

The festival’s first ever competition prize for best VR was given to “Arden’s Wake (Expanded)” by a jury led by the director John Landis. Laurie Anderson’s “La Camera Insabbiata” won for best virual reality experience, and “Bloodless,” about a camp town serving United States Army soldiers in South Korea, won for best virtual reality story.

The festival’s Orizzonti competition, sometimes home to more adventurous works, awarded best film to the music biopic “Nico, 1988” by the director Susanna Nicchiarelli. The Iranian film “No Date, No Signature” won two prizes, for best director and best actor. The section’s special jury prize was bestowed on “Caniba,” whose directors Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor gave their thanks in a video message featuring floating heart effects.


Charlotte Rampling, winner of the best actress award for “Hannah.”

Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Golden Lions for Lifetime Achievement were presented last week to Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, who starred in the out-of-competition selection “Our Souls at Night.”

Earlier Saturday the International Federation of Film Critics chose two films for its awards: Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary, “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library,” screening in competition, and “Oblivion Verses,” an offbeat debut feature by Alireza Khatami about a morgue worker. On Friday, the sidebar section Critics’ Week gave its top prize to the father-son drama “Hunting Season,” from an Argentine filmmaker, Natalia Garagiola.

The official competition was notable for big films that approached issues of social concern from surprising angles. The festival’s opening film, Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” received raves from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter for its tragicomic story starring Matt Damon as a man who undergoes a popular shrinking process in order to cut costs. George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, “Suburbicon,” is a slow-burn caper set in a 1950s suburban development that has accepted its first black family. It is scripted by Joel and Ethan Coen and also stars Mr. Damon alongside Julianne Moore, and evoked some comparison to the race-based mob violence last month in Charlottesville.

Mr. Wiseman’s “Ex Libris” and Mr. Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” were two very different favorites on the Lido, the Venetian island where the festival takes place. The fantastical premise of “The Shape of Water” is set against the backdrop of Kennedy-era America with an emphasis on the attitudes of the period. Michael Shannon plays a bigoted government investigator in a cast that includes Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, and Michael Stuhlbarg. The Hollywood Reporter called the result “a portrait of morally corrupt early-1960s America with an outsider tale of love and friendship molded by a master storyteller.”

Mr. Wiseman’s “Ex Libris” takes a three-hour-plus tour of the New York Public Library system and its myriad literary activities and social services. “Simmering just below the surface is a political message about libraries as places of social and intellectual engagement, empowered memory and pursuit of the truth in an America where such values are under attack,” Screen Daily wrote. Mr. Wiseman previously won a Golden Lion for lifetime achievement in 2014.

Mr. McDonagh’s darkly comic “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” also evoked comparisons to the strife in Charlottesville in August. It stars Frances McDormand as a mother who protests the handling of her daughter’s murder by the local sheriff (Woody Harrelson). The film won passionate applause at its premiere and was a favorite in a poll of international and Italian critics, alongside “The Shape of Water” and “Ex Libris.”

Two much-anticipated films made a stir but divided critics. Darren Aronofsky’s secretive thriller “Mother!” stars Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem in an apocalyptic domestic drama set almost entirely in an old house. It received some boos at its first press screening, but got heady reviews, with Screen Daily calling it “a devouring and restless experience: a creative surge that’s like the lancing of a boil.” Also playing in competition was “Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno,” the latest from Abdellatif Kechiche, director of the Cannes sensation “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” Screened late in the festival, its explicit story of a love triangle “wallows in visual delectation of the body,” according to Variety. Mr. Kechiche won the Golden Lion for “The Secret of the Grain” 10 years ago.

Two formally adventurous critical favorites were Lucrecia Martel’s Argentine period adaptation “Zama,” which garnered a five-star review from The Guardian; and Mr. Maoz’s “Foxtrot.” Variety singled out Mr. Maoz’s drama for “award-winning filmmaking on a fearless level.”

Other noted films were two coming-of-age stories: Andrew Haigh’s “Lean on Pete,” with a well-liked lead performance by the up-and-comer Charlie Plummer, winner of the Marcello Mastroianni Award for an emerging actor; and Anne Fontaine’s “Reinventing Marvin,” the winner of the Queer Lion award for films on gay culture, starring Finnegan Oldfield. Finally, the Venice slate also included a new virtual reality work by Tsai Mingliang and the six-part Netflix series “Wormwood,” from Errol Morris.

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