Throughout cinematic history, the most exalted and iconic filmmakers have been those who’ve had the vision and audacity to defy convention and blur the line between narrative and art. Italian director Maria Chiara Venturini is reminding audiences of cinema’s origin as an extension of the imagination.
Through her films, Venturini lovingly channels a nostalgic, avant-garde aesthetic that’s been absent from the silver screen for too long. Among her productions is the 2015 film “Ancien Régime,” an ode to the French New Wave and a thinly-veiled critique of vapid materialism. The film captured critics’ attention at festivals around the globe, and was chosen as the winner by judges at the Sprockets Film Festival in Toronto. At the heart of the sophisticated send-up is the iconic brand Chanel and its instantly recognizable style of highbrow black-and-white advertising.
“This was my first approach to black-and-white 16mm film. I liked the idea of creating something that would fit the look of the media itself — a dystopian world where a fashion dictator imposes his fashion rules on society seemed perfect,” Venturini described. “The film takes place in a classroom where the only word that people are allowed to say and teach is ‘Chanel,’ and the only solution for arithmetic problems is ‘N°5,’ like the perfume.”
To the untrained eye “Ancien Régime” is virtually indistinguishable from any of Chanel’s countless ad campaigns. Stark black-and-white cinematography, minimalist mise en scène and a strong focus on physical acting and borderline absurdism are defining characteristics of both “Ancien Régime” and the perfume giant it satirizes. To a great extent, however, Venturini’s affectionately ironic admonishment uses the iconic brand as a synecdochic catch-all for the kind of fanatical devotion many high-fashion brands elicit.
“We live in a society where sometimes we [confuse] real priorities with what’s [secondary]. Fashion… for some people comes before many more important issues. I wanted to pay homage to such a great brand, but also shake that part of the audience that behaves this way,” explained Venturini adding that, “with a smile you can make people understand the concept better too.”
Drawing inspiration from the surrealism of Salvador Dali and the eccentricity of Henry Selick, her 2015 film “The Laboratory of Dr. Enerd” offers a brilliantly dreamlike glimpse into the director’s mind.
“‘The Laboratory of Dr. Enerd’ is made with a stop-motion technique called pixelation that merges animation with human characters,” Venturini described. “I was exploring this new part of the world of animation but I still wanted to make a piece that will make the audience feel the same way I feel when I see other pixelation projects.”
Using the experimental new technology in combination with her years of experience in fine art photography, Venturini created a film which can only be described as simultaneously stop-motion and live-action. What may sound like a contradiction in terms is actually a mesmerizing, almost magical film about a young scientist and the outré experiments she conducts in her laboratory.
“Dr. Enerd is trying to follow her mother’s recipe to make something a little unusual,” explained Venturini. “Also bizarre are the ingredients and tools she decides to use in this preparation: unicorns, gummy bears, syringes and a stethoscope.”
The film is a meticulously calculated spectacle of imagination. From costuming and set design down to the finest details of every prop in the whimsical lab, every frame of “The Laboratory of Dr. Enerd” was crafted and vetted by Venturini with enormous care. That level of attention to color and design are perhaps what most distinguish the director as an artist first, filmmaker second. It’s also what earned the film the honor of being an official selection at the Citizen Jane Film Festival, as well as enabling it to reach audiences as far away as the Chinese festival circuit.
Venturini built on some of the stylistic eccentricities of “The Laboratory of Dr. Enerd” with her 2016 film “Waiting For Adams.” A much less vibrant film in comparison, “Waiting For Adams” instead takes on a more dreary aesthetic in its focus on a mysterious waiting room that seems disconnected from time and reality.
“‘Waiting for Adams’ is so far the most ethereal piece I’ve ever done. The whole project could be seen as just a dream,” she described. “People gave me lots of different interpretations of the story, and I felt like a psychiatrist that shows those inkblots to his patients.”
The film opens on a nun signing in at the reception desk of an indescript doctor’s office. As she takes a seat, keen-eyed cinephiles will recognize that she and the other waiting room patients are all characters from films that were nominated-but-snubbed at the Academy Awards.
“Only a movie geek could possibly know that all those characters are from movies that were nominated for an Oscar but lost. Thus, a desire for redemption brought them to consult one of the craziest plastic surgery doctors in order to change their look and have a second chance,” Venturini explained “Dr. Adams, inspired by Patch Adams, has no real surgery skills and ends up transforming everybody into monsters.”
One-by-one, a string of familiar characters enter the office of the insane Dr. Adams, and one-by-one they return as horrific beasts that would seem right at home in a Tim Burton movie. Meanwhile, the characters in the waiting room engage in awkward banter and show off their idiosyncrasies. The entire film is delightfully unusual and thoroughly original. Every detail is deliberately and painstakingly crafted to be like a dream — ethereal and open to interpretation. With “Waiting For Adams,” Venturini once again proved herself both a visionary director and artiste. Critics in Venturini’s native Italy rallied behind “Waiting For Adams,” choosing the film as an official selection at the Scrittura e Immagine Corto Film Festival.
More than a century ago, cinema began as an exciting new medium for artistic experimentation. Every few years since then, some brilliant mind will break through the mundane and familiar, uncovering for the first time some virgin territory in the limitless expanse of cinema’s artistic potential. In this generation of filmmakers, there are few figures as likely to follow in those revolutionary footsteps as Maria Venturini.