Should a Netflix film have a place in the competition section of a major festival like Venice? Some say yes and some say no. Those, like festival director Alberto Barbera, who put the controversial Beasts of No Nation into the Venice competition this year, say that things are changing fast within the film world and the fact that the Netflix movie will only get a fleeting footing in the cinemas at the same time as going out on all other media else means that a new world of watching is upon us.
This is a world where those who want to see films will be able to see them as and when they want, through whatever media they want. But the old world is doubtful. It says that film festivals at least partly exist to encourage people to see other than Hollywood or Bollywood in the cinemas. Take that distribution and exhibition strut away and the result could well be less movies of intrinsic worth being financed and supported.
Barbera's argument is probably right. You can't stop progress even if you object to it. So Beasts of No Nation, a violent if skillful story of an African warlord and a small boy whom he trains up as a vicious killer, goes straight to VOD and to the cinemas on the same day after its first exposure in Venice.
It is a deeply depressing tale. The young boy and his family are first seen sheltering in a village some way away from the coup which is destroying the government forces of their unnamed state. Their hopes of avoiding the conflict between government and rebel forces are ruined when government troops arrive and start slaughtering those who they believe are supporting the coup. Among them are most of the boy's family though his mother, a devout Christian, may still be alive. All he can do is run away, eventually into the arms of Idris Elba, a power-hungry warlord. If you want revenge, follow me, says the warlord, who commands a brigade of outlaws armed to the teeth and ready for anything.
Soon the boy is taught to obey any order implicitly, including the killing of one of the enemy with a hacksaw. Slowly but surely the boy becomes an armed soldier, enjoying the protection of the warlord provided he does what he is told. But in fact he is dimly aware of what is happening to him and secretly wants to see his mother again.
The film is very well shot in tough circumstances and has a central performance from Idris Elba that can only be described as mind-boggling. Abraham Attah as the boy is pretty good too. What we get is a portrait of African political mayhem, where ignorant natives follow paranoid leaders to the death, with corruption everywhere, that looks and feels startlingly true. But some will feel that this is not the real Africa, struggling towards democracy and modernisation with the help of Chinese millions and European charity, but an older version that suggests nothing will ever change.
Even so, Cary Fukunaga's film would certainly have an honoured place in competition if nothing to do with Netflix, and despite the fact that, though it doesn't dwell only on violence and subjugation, it is clearly too long at well over two hours. This means it repeats itself time and again in order to prove its main point which is how evil breeds evil in the minds of men who can be led to perdition by skilful hucksters. This may be an African story but it is also a bit more than that.