Bob Wilson's Life and Death of Marina Abramovic: Venice Review

A theatrical coming-together of several boundary-pushing talents is documented in conventional but illuminating style.

Giada Colagrande's documentary on the making of a theatrical extravaganza co-stars her husband, Willem Dafoe.

A coming-together of four major  talents is captured for posterity in the cumbersomely-titled documentary Bob Wilson's Life and Death of Marina Abramović. Directed by Giada Colagrande, the English-language Italian production is a straightforward behind-the-curtain peek with obvious interest for fans of radical theater director Robert Wilson, performance artist Abramović, singer/songwriter Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons fame, and Willem Dafoe.

The sudden explosion of worldwide interest in Abramović over the past couple of years, hastened by 2010's retrospective at MoMA in New York, guarantees Colagrande's film a certain measure of festival and high-brow TV exposure. But its briskly tube-friendly sub-hour running-time effectively rules out the theatrical distribution enjoyed in several territories this year by Matthew Akers and Jeff Dupre’s non-fictional record of the MoMa happenings, Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present.

Each of the four principals here is known for probing and sometimes demolishing artistic boundaries, but Colagrande, who directed three dramatic features between 2002-2010 and also happens to be Mrs. Willem Dafoe, makes no stab at transgressive experimentation. With slick assistance from DP Tommaso Bergstrom’s digital cameras, she foregrounds extracts from the rehearsals for The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, the Manhattan-based Serb’s follow-up to the much more austerely conceptual one-woman MoMA show The Artist Is Present.

An elaborate affair of opulently imaginative production design -- with eye-catching hair, costuming and make-up effects – the stage Life and Death is nevertheless a relatively conventional project by Abramović’s avant-garde standards. Devised almost entirely by Wilson, the piece features occasional songs from the effortlessly transcendental Hegarty and copious on-stage narration by a rasp-voiced Dafoe, who steals both show and the film with his exuberantly puckish, white-faced demon-clown persona.

Upbeat talking-head interviews perkily punctuate the politically-charged on-stage shenanigans, and within the limitations of a restricted running-time flavors of Wilson's colorful phantasmagoria and the chummily collegiate atmosphere backstage are imparted. Mutual praise is -- perhaps inevitably given the "authorized" nature of Colagandre’s project -- the order of the day, though most will regard this as an acceptable price for her all-areas access.

The best known of the four to the general public thanks to his prolific Hollywood career, but also a long-time denizen of much wilder theatrical fringes, Colagrande's spouse -- like his stage character -- provides invaluable flashes of flinty humor, grounding what might otherwise have veered off  into airy realms of precious self-congratulation.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days - Special Events)
Production company: Art+Vibes
Director: Giada Colagrande
Producer: Max Brun
Co-producer: Guido Cella
Director of photography: Tommaso Borgstrom
Editor: Natalie Cristiani
Sales agent: Rai Trade, Rome
No MPAA rating, 57 minutes