As the Venice Film Festival gets into day three, a couple of gripping movies have been screened. And, both deal with women, and both revolve around the hot-headed and the obstinate among them.
Emma Dante’s Sicilian drama competing for the Festival’s Golden Lion, A Street in Palermo, might well have played out on the streets of any of Indian city choked as they are with automobiles.
Italy’s well-known theatre director Dante sets her film on a suffocating narrow street in the city where on placid Sunday afternoon two cars face an eye-ball to eye-ball conflict. One of them is driven by Samira, the old and hated mother-in-law of a patriarchal family in which men have been reduced to impotent insignificance. The other vehicle is steered by the youngish Rosa, who is on the verge of a breakup with her lesbian partner, Clara. Neither is willing to move her car a few metres so that the other can pass.
Interestingly as the work moves, the street begins to look wider, till in the end, it seems so broad that four cars can easily run along one another. This, of course, conveys the shall-not-give-in attitude of the two women.
On that hot and sweaty afternoon, on that street where rules are never clearly defined, the drivers are so consumed by ego that they throw manners and civility out into the open. Both are fighting their own demons: Samira never speaks, perhaps the death of her married daughter having grieved her into a stony silence and an uncontrollable rage which pave the way for the stand-off on the street. For Rosa, the depressing prospect of having to lose a lover pushes her into a volcanic anger, and the fire can only be extinguished on that Palermo street.
One of the most fascinating movies I have seen from that part of Italy, A Street in Palermo creates sheer drama also through its swaggering male cast. The much married patriarch himself and Samira’s grandson, (with whom she shares perhaps the only affectionate bond) present a delightful variation to an otherwise all-women duel on wheels.
The handheld camera and the somewhat predictable end might be let-downers in a film that otherwise engages you with its admirably sparse explanations and economy of words. It is cinema, sheer cinema all right.
The other work was John Curran’s Tracks, which tells us the remarkable story of another dogmatic woman, Robyn Davidson (based on true adventure), who make an arduous 2000-km trip (we will call that padayatra in India) across the hostile Australian desert from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. She has four camels and her pet dog for company. Along the harshest of terrain with hardly any water and very little food, she is met by National Geographic photographer, Rick Smolan, who captures her voyage through his lens. The movie has been adapted from Davidson’s own memoirs.
There is no reason for Robyn’s nine-month trek except that she wants it done. So what if it is almost a suicidal sojourn. Call it doggedness, would you. Mia Wasikowska’s mesmerising performance against the backdrop of sand and storm are bound to be clinchers for Tracks.
The film may be slow paced, even languid, but the truth is, it reflects Robyn’s journey made in 1977. Called Camel Lady, she shies away from publicity (at some point photographers hound her; was the paparazzi there then?) and even people, preferring to be alone, like a lost soul in the wilderness of the great Australian desert.
Curran is judicious in his use of camera angles (not many top shots), and mounts his work in a way that both the performance and the landscape arrest you into total attention.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the 70th Venice Film Festival)