The Venice Syndrome (2013) ***
Dir. Andreas Pichler
Review By Greg Klymkiw
It's been forty years since Nicolas Roeg unleashed his creepy, evocative, dread-filled masterpiece Don't Look Now in which a young couple, played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, visit the city of Venice for an extended period of grieving after their child has been killed in a drowning accident. The very notion of spending time in a city built on water, the very substance that snatched life from someone you loved, is what infused Roeg's tale with one of the most overwhelming feelings of loss ever captured on film. A malevolent psychic portent seeped from every crevice of its setting as the couple attempt to rebuild their lives amidst a crumbling city of murky shadows, faint echoes and the constant sound of moving, drifting and dripping water - a city plagued with a series of grotesque serial killings that seem unconnected, but are all too inextricably linked to brief ghostly glimpses of a weeping child in a red raincoat, the same attire their departed daughter wore in her last seconds of life. Sutherland occupies himself with the restoration of an ancient church while Christie becomes friends with a psychic blind woman who claims to see the spirit of the dead child and astutely describes Venice as "a city in aspic, wrapped over from a dinner party, where all the guests are dead or gone."
It is this very place we experience in Andreas Pichler's The Venice Syndrome, an overwhelmingly sad documentary portrait of a once bustling and unique city state which, by 2030. will not have one single genuine resident left within its walls. As one of the film's subjects laments: "20 years ago Venice had a population of 200,000. Now the majority of those people have moved to the mainland. Soon Venice will become not a city, but an attraction like Disneyland."
Now, a mere 58,000 people live in Venice - no more than after the plague that first wiped out the population during the 13th century. 58,000 actual living, breathing residents in a place that now has the same number of tourists visiting daily, indeed feels like a city that's on the precipice of not being a city anymore. "Venice has become nothing but a dormitory," says a man who has been evicted from his home so the owner can rent it out to rich tourists. He has until Christmas to move and predicts he will spend the holiest of Christian holidays "in the gutter."
Pichler presents this as a litany. Venice is now a city populated by old people just trying to hang on to a way of life that's quickly being drained by corporate interests. Indeed, the city's once bustling, majestic post office has been closed down and sold to the Benetton Group, one of the most insidious corporate fashion manufacturing and retail empires in the world. This is truly a city on the open market. There is a push by the council to move the famed Rialto Market, the fresh produce lifeline of the city's residents, to the mainland - a move that would not only affect the customers in the heart of Venice, but the small business owners as well. Everything, it seems, is being sold off. Even basic services for the local populace are being moved to the mainland. Closures abound - the most controversial decision being the closing of the Pediatric emegergency ward. Locals protest, but to no avail.
Besides, most of them are poor. To live in Venice as a tenant is becoming a luxury few can afford. At the current property rates of 10-12000 euros per square metre, one dejected working class man states that "not even working a lifetime would be enough to be a property owner." Now, most sales of flats are to wealthy foreign tourists looking for an investment. Most rent them out as temporary vacation units, not homes.
Of course, the problem nobody wants to address, especially not civic politicians, is the safety and ultimate physical fate of the city. Endless studies have been commissioned to ascertain the realities of what truly lies beneath the buildings that rest on the water. With billions upon billions of dollars at stake, these studies are the most closely guarded secrets in Venice. And of course, these billions of dollars are made from exploiting public spaces and bypassing the treasury into the pockets of corrupt politicians and international corporations.
To sell a building is to provide guarantees about the its structure. One real estate salesman admits feeling guilty about misrepresenting the safety and strength of the structures he sells, but what can he do? To tell the truth is to destroy his livelihood.
Fascinatingly, many of the bricks found in Venice structures are in Roman measurements - they're ancient. Though the mortar developed by the Romans was made to last, nothing lasts forever. One subject of Pichler's film describes the physical deterioration of Venice as "exponential". As all waste goes into the canals. all the pipes of all the buildings are connected to the in-and-out H2O lifeblood of the city. This can mean only one thing: Water is in constant motion and loosens the mortar that holds the bricks. Water seeps in, and the mortar no longer holds the walls together.
Even worse are the restoration attempts. Following the traditional manner of creating mortar as strong as that made by the ancient Romans is seen as cost prohibitive and cheap cement mortar - which has a very short life span - is being used instead. In some cases, the cement mortar being used will disintegrate within 30 to 40 years since the refurbishment work is often being done as cheaply as possible.
"The entire architectural heritage of Venice will be destroyed," the real estate salesman admits. "I'm a defeated man. This great bitterness takes hold of you and never lets go."
A bigger divide than that which exists between locals and the corrupt city officials whose pockets are being lined by corporate interests is found between those who live in Venice and the ridiculous number of tourists.
"Where do they all pee?" jokes one old man. "They're going to make the water level rise."
Cruise ships the size of several football stadiums and skyscrapers put together rumble their way into the ports of the once grand city of Venice. The movement of water becomes so tangible that the vibrations force people to glue paintings to their walls to keep them from crashing to the floor.
And the only thing on these ships are thousands upon thousands of gawking Philistines, pouring out onto the cobblestones of Venice to buy expensive, cheaply made glass trinkets, now manufactured in China and putting the local Venetian glass artisans on the Isle of Murano out of business.
One resident laments the death of the Venice of old. "It was a village of simple, quiet folk," she says. "No barbarians."
Oh, but barbarians they are.
"People used to come here for a proper two week vacation," says one resident. "Now they fly in, take a quick look and fly out."
Or worse, as another points out, they are little more than "Take-away tourists." In other words, "They're not even aware of what they're experiencing. All they do is take pictures to look at when they get home."
As a tour guide observes: "People have a desire to have their dream of Venice fulfilled. It's not easy to tell people about the realities without destroying their dreams, because telling things the way they really are would mean completely shattering their stereotypical image of Venice."
And when it comes to stereotypes, the film depicts the most infuriating of all, the horrendous Doge's Ball - a grand, opulent and almost pathetic bargain basement Fellini freak show come-to-life. A woman who provides expensive period costumes describes it as "a dream."
Sounding like some grotesquely obvious, insincere flack, she says the ball is "aimed at people who never stopped dreaming and this wonderful city of Venice plays a crucial role in this dream. Without it all of this wouldn't be possible." Sounds nice - sort of - until, of course, she describes (and we eventual see) that "the guests all belong to the international jet set. Members of the nobility, fashion designers, industrial magnates, high-finance personalities... It's important to share this dream. For one night, we're in a place where we can pretend that time has stood still."
"We", of course, are moronic, out-of-touch-with-reality rich people.
While these tacky money-bag-laden scumbags prance about in period costumes as ornately attired go-go dancers gyrate for their edification, all those who do the real living and dying are being forced out of their city, their homes and their livelihoods.
"We all must kneel before the god of money," one man observes bitterly. "This isn't a democracy, it's a dictatorship."
The difference is that there isn't even the pretence of Totalitarian rule being "good" for the people. It is clearly and obviously to put money in the pockets of very few.
Pichler's film exposes the reality of Venice in ways that act as a microcosm for the whole of existence.
We live in a world increasingly dominated by corrupt, decadent rich boneheads who care about nothing and nobody but themselves.
Frankly, I'll take the psychopathic Venetian dwarf serial killer from Roeg's Don't Look Now over these pretentious, empty pigs who rule Venice and the "barbarian" tourists who really have no idea what's crumbling before their very eyes.
"The Venice Syndrome" opens theatrically on July 26 via Kinosmith. In Toronto, it plays at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.