This morning, I contributed to the audible sniffles and sobs at the screening of Origin, the 5th narrative feature by Ava DuVernay. Premiering in competition at the 80th Venice Film Festival, it’s an ambitious and highly emotional adaptation of the best-selling non-fiction book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. I expect there to be detractors of the film, both for its central thesis and the almost scholarly storytelling, but to me it’s an engrossing, more-than-worthy attempt at deconstructing systemic oppression throughout history. Thanks in no small part to an excellent ensemble cast led by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, it inspires you to think without failing to make you feel at the same time.
The film opens with the last moments of Trayvon Martin’s life. In 2012, the teenage boy was shot to death on his way home for no apparent reason other than being black. In the wake of the tragedy, Wilkerson (played by Ellis-Taylor), a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist-turned-author, is pursued by a former editor to write about the case. Instead of joining the discourse on racially motivated crimes in America, Wilkerson embarks on a research tour that takes her from Berlin to New Delhi, at the end of which she publishes a book that seeks to redefine racism as we know it by putting it in a historical, global context.
In essence, the film argues that the discriminatory treatment of black people in America isn’t a race issue. Like Nazi Germany and the caste system in India, it’s about the ruling class purposely dividing people into groups in order to effectively suppress and dehumanize those deemed inferior. It’s a bold claim that at first seems somewhat strenuous as it connects all these different regimes and cultures. But Wilkerson’s research does yield compelling parallels and, not being remotely qualified to comment on such a complex subject, I’d say the film’s core message is at the very least utterly humane. I agree that using racism as the default mode of observation can be limiting, and that the end goal must be to free people everywhere of division and unequal treatment of any kind.
A lot of the arguments the film makes it does so verbally. Wilkerson would discuss and debate with German and Indian colleagues on differences between their countries, she’d have a conversation with her cousin (Niecy Nash) to explain her findings or interview a friend (Audra McDonald) to get their childhood experiences. And there’s a lot of voice-over that recounts historical events or summarizes conclusions. It’s hard to deny the film has a slight lecture-y feel to it. That being said, DuVernay does find inventive ways to keep the narrative lively. The lives of pivotal characters from all three countries of reference are reenacted and carefully interwoven with Wilkerson’s own. The latter lost both her husband (Jon Bernthal) and mother (Emily Yancy) during this time. Those experiences also became part of her quest for truth and justice.
All the cited supporting actors are wonderful. Even though none has substantial screen time, each brings warmth and humanity to their role. Then there’s Ellis-Taylor, who’s so real, so dignified, radiates such intelligence and resolve, she’s just immensely watchable start to finish. In the film’s probably most heartbreaking scene towards the end, where she lies down next to a little black boy in 1951 and tells him he’s going to be ok, the waterworks, I’m telling you, the waterworks.
The second competition film that screened today – Italian director Matteo Garrone’s drama/adventure Io Capitano – also moved me greatly. Chronicling the journey of two teenage boys as they leave home in Senegal to look for a better future in Europe, it’s visually and aurally striking and features a star-making performance from its young lead Seydou Sarr.
16-year-old Seydou (played by Sarr) lives with his mother and siblings in Dakar. His family seems content with what little they have, but Seydou is persuaded by his cousin Moussa (Moustapha Fall) that they’d be able to provide their loved ones with much more if they can just make it to Italy. Their trip proves exceptionally challenging, being dropped in the middle of the desert and tortured by Libyan mafia just two of the many bumps in the road. After many an unexpected detour they finally arrive at Tripoli, Libya, where a boat should take them across the Mediterranean Sea.
After Green Border, we get another film that depicts the perils faced by those seeking safety and opportunity beyond the borders they’re born within. The script, while straightforward in structure, does a fine job illustrating what it takes for someone from Africa to flee to Europe today – every face on those packed boats tells a story. In the case of Seydou and Moussa, we see how they are cheated and mistreated by human traffickers every step of the way. When they get separated not knowing if they’ll survive, let alone see each other again, the fear in the scene is genuinely palpable.
Garrone directs the film with a lovely blend of realism and fancy. The portrayal of the boys’ life back home and their journey out of Africa feels grittily truthful but there are also fantastical interludes where, in the darkest moments, they dare to dream of a happier, more merciful alternate reality. DP Paolo Carnera delivers some of the most exquisite, hypnotically beautiful images of the festival. From aerial shots of the desert treks that showcase the stunning scale of the landscape to close-ups of the protagonists’ faces that magnify every scar memorializing a betrayal, nearly every frame is an artwork to behold. I would also single out the guitar-based score by Andrea Farri, which precisely, often surprisingly captures the varying tones of the film.
The secret weapon of Io Capitano, however, is Sarr. His expressions of hurt, disbelief, devastation and triumph, so open and raw, take your breath away. He gives this sweeping adventure its emotional pulse and, in the final scene, makes its simple title burn with meaning. For my money the award for best young performer at #Venezia80 is over, unless the jury thinks Sarr is even beating all the grown-up actors at their job.