The 69th Biennale fizzes into life with Mira Nair's festival opener The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
There was a notable absence of women directors in the Cannes competition earlier this year. No such oversight at Venice, with two of Wednesday’s main out of competition screenings keeping the female end up with contrasting perspectives on the human condition.
Adapted from Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel of the same name, Mira Nair’s thorny drama, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, deals with the minutiae of eastern and western social politics post 9/11, as experienced first-hand by a Muslim man torn between the two prevailing forces in his life: dreams and family.
Riz Ahmed has never been better as Changez; a young Pakistani who immigrates to the land of opportunity and quickly finds himself rising the corporate ladder at a top consultancy firm in New York as a self-made "soldier in the economic army". Another piece of the puzzle falls neatly into place when Changez meets emotionally damaged artist Erica (Kate Hudson), and the two form a happy and loving bond. Then the planes hit.
Changez finds himself on the receiving end of a xenophobic witch-hunt, and as everything he’s worked so hard for suddenly starts to unravel, his thoughts turn to home. Angry and with a score to settle, he turns his back on his new life and heads back to Lahore determined to arm the next generation of Ivy League hopefuls with the tools of militant academia. At least, that’s according to American journalist turned spook Bobby (Liev Schreiber), who’s investigating the abduction of a US professor by a group of religious fundamentalists in the region.
This is a film about challenging perceptions, and it is to Nair’s credit that a narrative device as commonplace as ‘looks can be deceiving’ is used to such intriguing effect. Make no mistake, there is no happy ending here; Islamic fundamentalism and American capitalism don’t ride off into the sunset together. Instead it is left to Changez, not as a hero or a villain but as a victim, to show that mankind’s greatest enemy is his own ignorance.
Aside from having one of the least appealing titles in this year’s Biennale programme (made worse by the fact the ‘c’ in Reluctant is replaced with an Islamic crescent moon/star symbol in the opening credits), this was a fittingly thought-provoking way to open the festival.
Striking a more delicate emotive chord was Canadian Sarah Polley and her terrific docu-family portrait, Stories We Tell. At times humourous, others tragic and always engaging, it’s a uniquely personal biography of Polley’s late mother, Diane, lovingly pieced together using crusty home movie footage and candid interviews with the children, friends and husband she left behind.
To say anything more about Diane’s life – or indeed Sarah’s – would be to undermine the extraordinary lengths that Polley has gone to in creating this detailed and joyous film. Indeed, the Take This Waltz director has already explained why no cursory review could ever articulate the remarkable journey she went on while making it.
Every family has its own story to tell, and though it’s surprising just how much Polley is willing to lay hers bare for the sake of her art, the intimate nature of this brave and bittersweet memoir will make you reflect on your own in a way you might not have before. It may even compel you to give someone you love a call.