This is my experience at the 76th Venice International Film Festival, one of the most prestigious cinematographic events of the year worldwide. In this article, I discuss some movies I watched that share a common theme: the contemporary family, with its problems and contradictions. I then reflect on what family really is and how it has evolved over time, and I highlight the importance of human bonds and connections in a world that is growing more hostile each day.
Last summer, I was fortunate enough to participate in the 76th Venice International Film Festival. This festival is one of the oldest and most prestigious events in the cinematographic world: founded in 1932, it has since then become an annual gathering for all cinema aficionados. As of today, the festival is an event where many international movies make their debut, bringing to the red carpet some of the most important artists of our time. In 2019, it took place between the 28th of August and the 7th of September. It was my first time joining the festival for more than a couple of days, which gave me the chance to experience it in a completely different way.
The event takes place on the island of the Lido in the Venice Lagoon. Before even stepping foot into the cinema, the first show that catches the eye is the variety of people you have the chance to meet. In a way, it reminded me of The Great Gatsby (1): I, like a naïve Nick Carraway, observed a “kaleidoscopic carnival” of journalists, critics, onlookers, cinema students and stars of various degrees – from the model to the influencer, from the almost unknown actor to the director in disguise, followed closely by his dear screenwriter. Humanity never seemed so fascinating, so bright and, so real.
Going to the movies on this occasion is far from going on any other given day. It all begins with the anxiety of the queue: standing in line – sometimes for hours – you don’t even know if you’ll manage to get inside the theatre (at the premiere of Joker, they closed the doors right in front of me, twice). The waiting makes you want to see the movie even more, and once you enter and take a seat, the magic happens. The public is livelier, sensations crash like waves in the rows of the audience: applause is louder, and at times laughter is sharp like a knife, sarcastic and contemptuous. You feel like part of something far bigger than yourself – a moody crowd, a cruel lover, capable of praise and mockery. Everybody has an opinion on everything and sharing it outside the theatre is part of what it turns into, an everyday ritual of endless discussion.
All this humanity is mirrored by the great screen on which the movies are projected: movies are fragments of lives told in a way that everybody can see something of themselves. I’m sure it’s not the first time that you hear this, but human beings are hungry for stories. Stories make sense of what happens to us, they give us a way to rationalize the twists and turns of our fate. They are the gateway to emotions we often choose to bury under the rug of indifference for our own good, and that otherwise will be left there to rot, hurting us even more.
Many of the stories that have been chosen for the latest edition of the festival revolve around family life, captured in those moments when things are not at their best, and there’s some adversity to face. In these stories, parenthood is atypical: they capture new types of family and complicated relationships. The institution of family is placed at the front of life as we live it today, and the result tells us something about the future.
In the following paragraphs, I will describe some of the movies that I watched while I was at the festival. Some of them have already made their debut in the theatres of the world, others didn’t, but consider this as a spoiler warning.
The festival was opened by The Truth, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda: a delicate story, that revolves around the relationship between an independent daughter – played by Juliette Binoche – and her childish mother – played by an amazing Catherine Deneuve. The mother is a famous French actress who has just released a new autobiography, and the daughter has come all the way from the USA to celebrate the publishing of the book, despite the two not being on good terms. And, as expected, conflict soon sparks: the daughter reads her mother’s version of their family’s past and immediately becomes furious. But living together again and spending some time on the film set where the mother works will give them an excuse to reflect on their relationship and on past mistakes, working towards forgiveness and acceptance. Kore-eda was able to paint a delightful postcard in which the two women are able to smooth out their differences and learn – now that they are both of a more mature age – how to really be each other’s mother and daughter, despite their opposite natures, and how to make such roles work for them, even if not fitting into scripted categories.
The Truth, Trailer
A movie that has been widely discussed is Ema, by Pablo Larraín. Ema, the protagonist, is a teacher and a dancer. At the beginning of the movie, her family is in shambles: her son has been taken away by the social services because she wasn’t able to provide for him, and her husband hates her for this reason. She is an impulsive woman, constantly facing bad-mouthing and criticism from the people around her, but there’s a flame in her eyes that makes her always look determined: she has a crazy plan to build back her destroyed family. This movie flows with reggae rhythms and a video art aesthetic, made of colourful neon lights, sensual scenes and even a flamethrower. It’s about a free, out-of-the-schemes motherhood, a femininity that is not afraid to be controversial. Ema is able to regain her status of mother through what, in a patriarchal society, is considered the polar opposite of the behaviour of a good, respectable woman: she is extremely sexual and engages in multiple relationships at the same time, both with men and women. Being in close contact with her sexuality allows her to be truly female: women today are less and less scared of their bodies, and she is no exception. In the end, her household will gain more members than the ones it started with: her husband and another married couple, the new parents of her child, are now tied to Ema in an intricated web of love and passion, and she is the nucleus of this new polyamorous family. A new balance has been achieved, and together, they will take care of the child. In many cases, such a fierce femininity is a slap to the patriarchy, which would want the woman to be submissive, destroyed by the loss of her child and ostracized from society for not being able to conform to an ideal standard of motherhood. But Ema doesn’t care, she dances a dance of her own.
The movie Babyteeth, by Shannon Murphy, is an excellent example of how the term “family” can be synonym for “inclusion”. It’s about a family that is experiencing a very difficult time: their daughter, Milla, has been diagnosed with cancer for the second time. Although this premise might make the plot look like a tragedy, this movie is full of life: there are no hospitals, no personifications of agony, no voyeuristic views of pain and death. Milla has already accepted what is happening to her and tries to live her teen years with fullness and joy, even rebelling a little: she falls in love with a boy a few years older than her who her parents don’t approve of, she follows him to parties, tries cigarettes and gets a bad haircut from him. The characters that surround the girl are the true protagonists of the story – her parents, the boy, the piano teacher and his young student, a pregnant neighbour. Throughout the film, these people grow, they evolve by trying to accept Milla’s imminent death, and by doing so, they slowly get closer to each other, becoming an extended family. Despite their conflicts, despite the difficulties, at the end everybody is present to celebrate Milla’s last birthday. The illness is a narrative medium used to shatter the conventional boundaries that make blood the only way to define what family is and what is not: taking care of each other in many ways is what keeps these people together, even after Milla, who seemed to be the one keeping them together, is gone.
Finally, I’d like to talk about the movie that I loved the most: Marriage Story, directed by Noah Baumbach – available on Netflix. This movie is about a marriage looking at it through its ending, a unique perspective. It is impossible not to love the protagonists, Charlie and Nicole, played by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson: he is a theatre director, a good, genuine man always with his head in the clouds; she is a theatre actress that used to be a movie star, she is a human tornado with great energy, always cheerful and strong. There’s a duality between them, mirrored by the cities that have a special place in their hearts: for him, New York, made of artistic and overpopulated places; for her, Los Angeles, with its large spaces and the sun shining all the time. Divorce comes inevitably – this is the most upsetting aspect of this movie: no matter how much you look for solutions, there’s no way the divorce can be avoided without involving the total sacrifice of one of the couple. Nicole feels invisible, devoured by a marriage that demands her to be a wife and a mother, but never her own person, her true self, with her personal voice and passions. For Charlie, the divorce comes out of the blue in a life that he believed to be happy and calm, but that he maybe lived in an egotistical way. Seeing them fight is like seeing your own parents fight: for a moment, you might want to get up, to not listen and bury your head under the pillow to avoid hearing the plates crash on the kitchen floor. It’s painful, it’s real. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel: the divorce is just a phase in their life, and from it they grow, finding out that love is not just romantic, and as such can last forever. It’s this new type of love that makes them discover what it still means to be a family after the storm has passed and life has adapted to big changes.
Marriage Story, Trailer
The families portraited by these movies are facing a variety of challenges that make them drift away from the definition of “traditional family”, i.e. a family composed of a married man and woman and their children. The protagonists of these movies perfectly represent an inexorable mechanism that began after World War II, and it is still relevant today. This phenomenon is called Second Demographic Transition (3, 4). During the Fifties, it was unthinkable to live outside of certain social schemes: for example, a woman had to be married and have children as soon as possible. If a person did not follow said schemes, they would have been considered odd and faced social pressure to conform, being ostracized if failing to do so. Slowly, during the Sixties and Seventies, these schemes became more flexible: the pressure of tradition and social shame relaxed, and people gained the possibility to choose to concentrate on personal happiness, if willing to do so. With the changing of a series of social principles, the conception of family has transformed: from the materialistic values – gaining and accumulating wealth as a primary goal in life – to the post-materialistic ones, such as individual freedom and self-realization; this means that an individual has gained the ability to act following his or her own will and achieve what they consider their potential. In part, this was caused by the emancipation of women and their access to the world of work, which has brought us a more balanced division of domestic tasks – even if not in an optimal, equal way. In part, it was caused by the diffusion of contraceptive methods as a way to plan parenthood, making it possible for couples to have a healthy sex life and postpone having children until whenever they felt it appropriate for their needs (3, 4).
Even though marriage is still prevalent (3), it’s not the only form of union possible. As the sociologist Anthony Giddens says in The Transformation of Intimacy. Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies (2), around the Fifties and the early Sixties the concept of romantic love was used to mask the real power dynamics between the couple. This old conception of family was based on male supremacy over women, and that’s why family appeared solid, and marriage used to last – at least, superficially. In the Seventies this vision began to be replaced by a more idealistic, more “utilitarian” vision of being a couple. Giddens calls it “pure relationship”. The reasoning behind this type of relationship is: “what benefits – not just on an economic prospective, but most importantly on a psychological and affective one – can your company bring me?”. At this point, families would hold only if there were true affective values in play. This way of thinking has made couples more precarious, in fact cohabitation and divorce have become common and less frowned upon, but family has opened up to new forms of experimentation and is evolving.
Let’s take for a moment some distance from a traditionalistic view of the family, and ask ourselves: isn’t it right to have the possibility to form family units based on authentic affection and mutual respect? Wouldn’t it be great to be able to decide to live our own truth, in a more liberal climate, and form families without the need of institutional permission?
Kore-eda himself, in his Shoplifters, was able to narrate this type of vision. In this film, a man and his son come across a little girl in the freezing cold: even though their family is making barely enough money to survive and they have to resort to small crimes, they decide to take care of her. Throughout the movie – and all the movies that I mentioned above – we can see how strong the bond between people can be, despite not being related by blood, but by genuine affection and mutual help.
Human beings, as proven by centuries of history, dislike change. We are afraid, we clutch to what we know like children to their blankets in the dark. The new and the different are to be banished, and if we can’t do that, we manifest our unhappiness in a vocal, whiny way.
Emancipated women are scary. Homosexuals and transgender people are scary. Immigrants, then, are the biggest scare of the last few years. The institutions of our society want us lonelier, more lost and confused, because a terrified person will cling to anything, if it means not drowning in the sea of uncertainty that is the world today. We will believe every tale about monsters from beyond the sea – capable of stealing our jobs and our wives and our peace –, we will support every egocentric man that proclaims himself a hero, ready to send innocent people to the slaughter, if it meant gaining one more ounce of power, and we will buy all the things that are said to be necessary – even if they are not in the slightest. To sum it up, we will do everything we are asked to do, as long as there are vain promises to make us feel safe.
One of the last handles that we have left to cling to in this chaos is family. It has changed so much in these last few years, but it still holds a great certainty: it can be a place of love and acceptance, of support and growth and so much beauty. All kinds of family are valid, as long as you feel safe and cared for. If we can accept a new untraditional conception of family, which includes homosexual, bisexual and transgender relations, extended family units and single parents, then we will have a better chance to accept all the novelties that the world has to offer, to become more resilient and to expand our vision to greater realities.
Let’s look for all kinds of bonds and relationships, without conforming to established definitions, to boxes to fill in. These ties are what make stories, and stories are what make us who we are, human beings.
- Fitzgerald, F.S., “The great Gatsby”, 1925
- Giddens, A., “The Transformation of Intimacy. Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies”, 1992.
- Santoro, M., “Conoscere la famiglia e i suoi cambiamenti” (only Italian version available), 2012.
- Zaidi, B,, and Morgan, S.P., “The second demographic transition theory: a review and appraisal”, Annu Rev Sociol, 2017