One of the attractions of the ongoing 74th edition of the Venice Film Festival is the Virtual Reality island.
One of the attractions of the ongoing 74th edition of the Venice Film Festival is the Virtual Reality island, a short boat rides away from the Lido that hosts the annual cinema event. The island, Lazzaretto Vecchio, which has been converted into a VR venue, has had an infamous past. Once upon a time in the history of the Roman Empire, the island served as a colony for lepers (remember the lepers colony in Ben-Hur?) – and also as a place of isolation for those stricken by plague, an incurable affliction then. What is more, Lazzaretto Vecchio was also where the dead bodies of men and animals were dumped, and as I made my way into the island, I could feel a sense of eeriness all right.
But then, my anxiety was soon dispelled by the transformation I saw there. It had become a centre of fascinating VR, with old buildings renovated to showcase brand new work from the VR industry. One of the structures houses a small auditorium, which screened works like Melita.
And I along with others walked around the island wearing Oculus headsets and earphones listening to exciting adventure tales. And what were they about? Holocaust survivors, invasions from other planets, sea monsters as they went about their wicked ways and, hold your breath, jewel thieves! Oh no, they were not Ashok Kumar and Dev Anand chasing each other in a cat-and-mouse game in Vijay Anand’s unforgettable classic, Jewel Thief. Maybe, maybe, if Dev would have been still living, he would have been tempted to insert into the Venice VR world a few reels from his movie. I would have then heard him walking on the deserted road, singing Yeh Dil Na Hota Bechara, with pretty damsels, including that magnificent actress, Tanuja, in a car honking at the man with the fishing rod. Well, Venice was poorer by Dev’s death, it seemed to me then as I watched those robbers! The VR shows were exciting all right.
In a way, it seemed ironical that the world’s oldest film festival at Venice – having begun in 1932 with Cannes popping up only in 1946 (had World War II not intervened the French would have had theirs earlier in 1936) – is perhaps the most forward looking, constantly trying out new art forms. This is also the first time that VR has been made part of Venice’s official programme with a competition, a jury and prizes.
I would like to conclude this piece with an apt quotation by Xan Brooks in The Guardian: “At the Venice Film Festival, skeptics joke that a former leper colony is the perfect home for an industry still finding its range and fighting for mainstream acceptance. But over 3,000 visitors have made the crossing this week and the Venice VR section is widely judged to have been a success. The artists on Lazaretto Vecchio, then, aren’t exiles or pariahs. They’re pioneers who colonised a ruined island and proceeded to build a new world”.
As the Festival winds down to its close this evening (September 9) with the awards ceremony, here are some of my favourite movies. I was quite moved by our own Ritesh Batra’s old-age drama, Our Souls At Night, with two exceptional actors, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, driven to desperate loneliness and coming together in the warmth of a bed. Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete was a sad study of a teenager checkmated by one tragedy after another, and when the race horse he adores is killed in a road accident, he is inconsolable. But then life gives him one more chance to smile! George Clooney’s Suburbicon ends on a wonderfully positive note with a white boy and a black boy beginning a new friendship after their families had been battered and bruised. I was impressed by the character Frances McDormand essays in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and the way she handled the rape and murder of her teen daughter. Yes, there was something about Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz in Loving Pablo, all about the Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar, who turned America into a cocaine Hell at one point in time.
But then I will not be surprised if the jury thinks differently. Whatever the verdict be, it cannot be a greater jolt than what happened at the Cannes of 2004 – when Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, walked away with the Festival’s top prize, Palm dÓr, probably aided by the Quentin Tarantino jury, another Bush hater! Moore’s work did not deserve that honour.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic who is now covering the Venice Film Festival)