Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams in Terrence Mallick's To the Wonder

The awkward moment when model/actress and jury member Laetizia Casta interrupted Ulrich Seidl's sincere acceptance speech giggling something along the lines of “oops, wrong award, sorry!” pretty much sums up what has happened the past ten days at the Venice International Film Festival. Despite being in its 69th year, the festival behaved more like a teenager on Xanax—somewhat erratic but overall too drowsy to cause real trouble. But, then again, things could have been much worse, after all Alberto Barbera inherited a messy and dilapidated festival that had been hanging out inertly in the Italian sun and completely missed the point of renovation (also in the literal sense: the festival location is half run-down, half under construction), innovation and adaptation to a new market. With the Toronto International Film Festival growing to its enormous present proportions and snapping at Venice's heels, its former status as the most important festival of the fall/winter season has been challenged; even in Italy itself other festivals, such as the Rome International Film Festival, now led by former Venice festival helmsman Marco Müller, are waiting to take over.

However, having one’s back against the wall also gives one the freedom to try anything to escape the status quo and Barbera did try his best to recapture the festival’s former reputation and to give it at least a new coat of glitz & glamour (the award for loudest screaming and fainting women goes to Zac Efron and James Franco) and a solid, though downgraded, film program, that went from adipose omnivore to a slender 18-course menu of mostly European arthouse films this year, spiced up with some Asian entrees and American a grand auteurs buffet of Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson and Brian de Palma. Malick’s To The Wonder probably inspired the most mixed reception of the festival. While some hailed it as a masterpiece that follows in the footsteps of Tree of Life, others hated it for the same reason. At times it seemed that the problem with Malick’s palpably religious films is not a matter of “getting Malick” as an artist, despite the fact that his aesthetics and narrative approach are quite unique and not easy to get into, but rather it might simply be a question of one’s personal approach towards religion itself. Looking at the responses to the film, it seemed that his dreamy, cosmological and at points almost esoteric filmic treatment of faith simply does not connect well with audience members who approach religion differently. For some, his protagonists standing in cornfields, bathing in the sun while touching the crops and looking towards the sky, felt like a spiritual contemplation of the relationship between man and God, while for others it looked like a cheesy advertising campaign with kitsch-drenched images.

Margarete Tiesel in Ulrich Seidl's Paradise: Love

Religion is, however, a difficult and deeply personal subject, which could be found in all colors and shapes within the competition lineup. It definitely was the central theme of the festival—a bold move, considering its location in one of the most conservative Catholic countries of Europe.  Not bold enough, however, was Barbera's decision to have content and stories reign over form and aesthetics. The festival’s title literally translates to “international exhibition of cinematic art”—yet the art of making cinema does not only include the art of storytelling and the accordance of contents to an overall theme. By the nature of being selected for this festival, all movies exhibited a high level of quality when it came to their visuals, but none of them managed to showcase something new or even merely exemplary. The audience was left to surrender to the stories told, considering them as the main subject matter—a mindset that together with the religious content portrayed explained the many demonstrations in front of the red carpet. Apart from Malick, movies that were heavily (and sometimes overdramatically) used as platforms to discuss abortion, euthanasia, religious freedom, etc. included: Mario Bellocchio’s Dormant Beauty (Bella Addormentata), dealing with the Italian hot topic of allowing people in a vegetative state to die, and Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love (Paradies: Glaube), a portrayal of a deeply religious Catholic woman whose love for Jesus turns from spiritual into literal, resulting in a scene where she masturbates with Jesus on the cross. Seidl's bold statements earned him a campaign against his film in the Italian press, a religious organization suing him for hurting their religious feelings and the Special Jury Prize of the festival.

Seidl being given an award was still not as shocking as Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master “only” being awarded for Best Actor (which Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hofman had to share) and Best Director while being otherwise “snubbed” by the jury, who bestowed Kim Ki-duk with the Golden Lion for his comeback film Pieta. After his burn-out and deep personal problems, Kim had almost lost his ability to direct films when he pulled himself out of his misery by his bootstraps, ingeniously filming himself in the process and giving personal insight into his struggles in Arirang. With Pieta he has delivered a furious comeback indeed, filling his movie with many images of struggle and violence, which he juxtaposes with contemplation and love. It might not be his strongest feature, but it was one of the most candid contributions to this year’s festival. Whether or not it is better than The Master is a matter of perception. Both are genius in their own ways, though both also have their flaws. Stating that Anderson’s movie is not perfect almost seems bold—his followers are fervent in their desire to adore his works and allow no objections. However great a filmmaker he is, The Master has its weaknesses when it comes to the script: granting Anderson prizes for director and actors was a fair-minded decision. And if anyone should feel snubbed, it would be Yoo Min-young who won Best Short Film but was forgotten at the award ceremony. He got his trophy at the reception dinner later on along with some Aperol Sprizz and some Italian prosciutto.

Hadas Yaron in Rama Burshtein's Fill the Void

As the most anticipated movies all turned out to be good but not exceptional, let alone mind-blowing, what is left of the Venice Film Festival that used to make a cinephile’s heart warm? It was, as with every film fest around the world, the discovery of contributions that stood out from the shadows cast by the big names and films. Amazingly somber and cold as the Siberian winter, Kirill Serebrennikov’s Betrayal (Izmena) featured an outstanding and alien-like performance by German actress Franziska Petri. Much warmer but just as quietly disturbing was Hadas Yaron’s performance in the Israeli drama Fill The Void, telling the story of the young Hassidic orthodox Jew, Shira, coming to terms with her family wanting her to marry the husband of her recently-deceased sister. She was also awarded the Silver Lion for Best Actress. One of the few visually outstanding works, The Fifth Season (La Cinquiéme Saison), by the artist couple Jessica Woodworth and Peter Brosens, effortlessly integrated surrealist visualization into a dark apocalyptic tale. Awarded Best Screenplay, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas awed audiences with Something in the Air, his heartfelt and well-researched portrayal of the post-1968 movement in France and the difficulties of growing up within a highly politicized world.

But alas, in the end Venice was but a mediocre festival, compared to the other big A-festivals. It lacked a proper shape, a sharp edge, the amibitiously strong lineup it once had. There is a lot still to do for Barbera, who had tried to shape the festival once before. Ten years ago he was bullied out of his job by the Berlusconi government. Now that Berlusconi is gone, Barbera is back, but the country is in a mess and so is the festival. Still, it is too early to start mourning its passing—the 70th edition is well on its way. And, like they say: there's life in the old dog yet.