Do you believe? Do you believe Mel Gibson, the movie star, the Oscar-winning producer and director, the part-time pariah, can be redeemed in the eyes of the Hollywood establishment?
I think it just happened. "Hacksaw Ridge" made its world premiere Sunday at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival. With this, his fifth feature film as director, Gibson's the toast of the Lido, after being toast himself, or perilously near it, in Hollywood and environs.
Let's leave aside his off-screen travails and acknowledged anger management challenges. Let's overlook his rant against Jews during a 2006 Malibu drunken-driving arrest. Gibson's directorial follow-up to "Apocalypto" 10 years ago has returned him to the good graces of the much of the world press and, very likely, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose Oscar nominations come out in January.
"Hacksaw Ridge" is a fervent, extraordinarily bloody World War II drama about the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor. It's the most bloodthirsty movie about a pacifist ever made. That paradox is hardly beside the point; it holds the key to the film's likely worldwide success.
It stars an enormously sympathetic Andrew Garfield as Desmond T. Doss, the Seventh-day Adventist assigned as a medic to the 307th Infantry, 77th Army Division. The Virginia-born Doss refused to carry a gun owing to his religious beliefs. He was widely derided as a coward and a freak by his fellow enlisted men. (Vince Vaughn plays his sergeant, tormentor at first, protector in the end.) Then the truth about Doss was revealed, though it was there all along: Here was a man of true conviction and a bone-deep commitment to his religion's tenets. Doss ended up saving 75 lives in the Battle of Okinawa. In emotional terms, Doss was the reason the battle was won. And the war.
Far grislier in its images of battlefield slaughter than "Saving Private Ryan," if not especially concerned with the moral horrors of war, "Hacksaw Ridge" received a 10-minute standing ovation at its official public world premiere here on the Lido, across the water from Venice, a few hours after its early morning media screening. It opens in U.S. theaters in November and comes equipped with strong appeal for both WWII buffs and faith-based constituents (who turned out in record numbers for Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," a $612 million grosser, "grosser" being definable at least two ways).
Doss' life is the stuff of true courage under fire. Gibson's take, scripted by Andrew Knight and "Kentucky Cycle" dramatist Robert Schenkkan, keeps Doss' spirituality at the heart of everything. Visually echoing Seventh-day Adventist beliefs, Gibson begins his story of hellfire with slow-motion images of napalmed soldiers flooded by the "lake of fire" awaiting all unrighteous nonbelievers.
At one point, before Okinawa, Garfield as Doss protests to his superior officers: "My values are under attack." Surely this is a line that has significant personal meaning to director Gibson, whose traditionalist Catholic doctrine has set him at odds with much of the perceived Hollywood culture.
Truly, the power of faith, along with a rapidly expanding definition of what the movies are becoming, has turned this edition of the Venice festival into a collision of the secular, the religious and the cinematic.
Continuing through Saturday, the world's oldest international film festival (begun in 1932) goes by the full name of Mostra Internazionale d'Arte Cinematografica la Biennale di Venezia. The festival opened with a film even more warmly received than Gibson's: Damien Chazelle's extraordinary widescreen musical "La La Land," destined like "Hacksaw Ridge" for many Academy Award nominations come January. "La La Land" made its world premiere here, then zipped immediately to Telluride, Colo., for a North American premiere (next stop: Toronto and Chicago festivals). Two of the world's most pleasurable and vital film festivals, the four-day Telluride and the 11-day Venice, take place simultaneously.
"La La Land" stars Ryan Gosling and a majorly terrific Emma Stone as a couple of singing, dancing LA dreamers in glorious CinemaScope. Chazelle's film pays homage to a host of film musicals and directorial masters past. It is a work of pure faith, although not the religious kind.
With "Jesus VR: The Story of Christ," the doctrine's hardly in doubt. Touted as "the first virtual reality feature-length film ever made," this 90-minute home-viewing novelty is due out at Christmas and available on various platforms, including Google Cardboard and Oculus Rift. If the "Transformers" franchise ever needs new character names ....
On the second floor of the festival's casino building, in an oblong space equipped with 50 VR headsets and swivel chairs, 40 minutes of "Jesus VR" were shown as a sneak preview, with one of the producers, Alex Barder, in attendance along with director David Hansen.
"Jesus VR" was shot in Matera, Italy, where Mel Gibson made his "Passion," and the executive producer on "Passion," Enzo Sisti, also worked on this project. It's photographed in 4K, 360-degree digital. When you have the headgear and the headphones on, you can look straight ahead, straight behind, left, right, up, down, swivel in a full circle, whatever, and you'll see some part of what is best described as a cinematic diorama in the round.
You're essentially an invisible extra in the Jesus story, from manger birth to crucifixion death, alongside Second Shepherd on the right. In the manger scene, I swung around in my swivel chair and found myself mere inches from a wet-nosed cow.
There is virtually no cutting or camera movement. The images are blurry, as if you're sitting too close to a 1966 Zenith TV console, the way I used to sit when "Batman" was on. "Jesus VR" may garner some interest among the VR-curious. But without a better, crisper image, filmmaking this rudimentary inspires three little words: not there yet.
During the break, the VR headsets came off for a cool-down and people asked a few questions. Someone wondered about the weirdness of the static visual quality combined with allegedly immersive technology. Director Hansen chewed his fingernails a bit, and then admitted they tried moving the camera now and then, or cutting within a pageant-like tableau, but it didn't work.
"It took you out of the scene," he said.
Someone else called the "Jesus VR" demonstration "a solitary experience." Hansen chewed his nails again, and then muttered: "Is that good or bad?"
"It's only an observation," the woman said.
Producer Barder jumped in. "That's the power of the platform. It's a very personal experience ... you can see this two, three, four, 10 times" and see a different movie every time, he said.
If this were the future, it seemed a lot like 1926. That year, audiences heard Al Jolson sing on screen in a Vitaphone short released the year before "The Jazz Singer." The technology was crude. The camera's mobility, so joyous and free in the best silent films, had abruptly vanished. Yet the public was intrigued.
It took some time for the movie industry to figure it all out. Maybe that's where we are now with VR. Years from now, when virtual reality seems less like a threat and more like a filmmaking avenue full of promise, we'll see things differently. VR will become truly, scarily, mundanely immersive in gamer-style scenarios or pornography or, who knows, another Son of God retelling. When we get there, I'll remember the demonstration of "Jesus VR" in the 2016 Venice film festival. And, if nothing else, I'll remember that cow.
At this year's Venice Film Festival, Michael Phillips is serving on the Biennale College Cinema panel. The Biennale paid for travel and lodging.
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