“The Master,” about an American guru and his unruly disciple, swept up three trophies at the Venice Film Festival, as director Paul Thomas Anderson and co-stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix all won.
The best-film award, or Golden Lion, went to Korean Kim Ki-Duk’s “Pieta,” about the encounter between a young loan shark and a woman claiming to be his mother. Appearing on stage to pick up his prize, Kim, wearing his long gray hair pulled up, broke into song in Korean to voice his gratitude.
“The Master” awards were collected at the red-carpet closing ceremony on Sept. 8 by a puffy-eyed, ill-shaven Hoffman, who said he had just stepped off a long-haul flight.
“I still have crust on my eyes from the sleep on the plane, and I put this suit on in a bathroom, so please don’t judge,” joked the actor, wearing glasses, a navy suit, and a loose tie.
Describing Phoenix as “a life force in this film,” he said, “I kind of rode that life force, and that was my performance! It was really riding his life force, because it was something that was untamable.”
In the film, Phoenix plays a 1950s U.S. Navy veteran named Freddie Quell who heads home to start a new life. Too uncontrollable to hold down jobs as a portrait photographer and a farm hand, he hops on a riverboat one night and finds a group of people idolizing a charismatic master (Hoffman).
Before long, he joins the cult, which director Anderson said he modeled after L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology. Yet he still operates on a combination of rage and lust that not even the Master can temper.
Venice’s best-actress prize went to Hadas Yaron for her role as a young Hasidic Jew made to marry her widowed brother-in-law in “Fill the Void,” a first feature by Rama Burshtein (herself a member of the Hasidic community). It was one of the strongest of the 18 movies competing for the Golden Lion this year.
Steering the nine-person jury was “Heat” director Michael Mann. Fellow jurors included performance artist Marina Abramovic, actresses Samantha Morton and Laetitia Casta, and “Gomorrah” director Matteo Garrone.
Venice 2012 was characterized by pouring rain and a slimmed-down lineup under a new director. The headline out-of-competition event was Robert Redford’s solid “The Company You Keep,” about a group of anti-Vietnam-war activists who are tracked down decades later by a reporter (Shia LaBeouf).
Another out-of-competition highlight was Spike Lee’s “Bad 25,” an entertaining documentary on the making of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” album.
Two big-name U.S. directors in the official contest disappointed the critics. Terrence Malick, whose “The Tree of Life” won the Cannes Film Festival last year, presented a troubled love story called “To the Wonder” starring Ben Affleck and ex-model Olga Kurylenko, best known for her role as a James Bond girl in “Quantum of Solace.”
Brian De Palma, director of “Scarface” and “The Untouchables,” let down the reviewers with “Passion,” a Berlin-based thriller about two female advertising executives at each other’s throats (Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace).
Even Anderson’s “The Master” sputtered after a promising start. Lavishly shot in the extra-wide 70-millimeter format, it featured spectacular opening scenes with Phoenix. Yet the movie soon lost its magic and mystery, as the myth of the Master was quickly debunked.
Phoenix displayed bad-boy behavior at the movie’s news conference. Looking uncomfortable before a sea of reporters and cameras, he wriggled, lit up a cigarette, briefly left the room, and basically refused to answer questions.
One other visually striking in-competition U.S. film was Harmony Korine’s bikinis-and-machine-guns “Spring Breakers,” about four college girls who escape to Florida during spring break and get caught up with a silver-toothed gangster (James Franco).