Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman got a splendid reception on the opening night of the 71st edition of the Venice International Film Festival. On the Lido, off mainland Venice, where the festival began its 11-day roll on Wednesday (its runs till September 6, 2014), Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance got a standing applause from the huge gathering present and near unanimous kudos from the international media. What a stark contrast this was to the Canes Film Festival opener in May, Grace of Monaco, which was universally panned by critics.
After the premiere of Birdman that was also attended by the Italian President, Giorgio Napolitano as the Guest of Honour, the movie's stars and director, including Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan and Inarritu, took turns taking their bows - replicating a scene from the film.
After last year's Venice opener, Gravity, took home seven Academy Awards, the bar has been set high, and Keaton with his superb performance, and Norton with an equally captivating one, have already been thrown into the Oscar race.
And Inarritu has truly been an actor's director. His last three films, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful, have all had their actors garner an Oscar nod. Keaton may well join this brigade.
In Birdman, Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, a once glorious actor trying to put his Broadway career on track. And as he tries this, he is insecure, he is arrogant and he is desperate. But he is also human, and some of the scenes with his former wife (Amy Ryan) and daughter (Emma Stone) underline this in a very poignant sort of way.
The movie is as arresting as Keaton's performance. Wonderfully scripted, the black comedy is precise and polished. It is technically brilliant - much in the same way Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity was last year. Both Inarritu and Cuaron are Mexicans.
Birdman, set in real time (Alfred Hitchcock was one of the first to accomplish this in Rope) with long and complex shots, highlights Thompson's angst as he tries to stage a Raymond Carver story. He funds it, directs it and also stars in it - hoping that this would pump oxygen into his near lifeless career.
As the play races towards its opening night, Thompson has many demons to tackle: Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who comes as a replacement to an injured actor, is known to have a massive ego, the demands of Thompson's girlfriend, and the problems of his freshly rehabilitated daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), also working as an assistant in the production. More importantly, Thompson has to convince theatre critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) not to rip his play apart.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Venice International Film Festival)