In Context: John Arcilla’s Historic Win at the Venice International Film Festival
BY Philbert Dy
November 29, 2023

Filipino actor John Arcilla won the best actor prize at the most recent edition of The Venice International Film Festival for his role in Erik Matti’s On the Job: The Missing 8. This news deserves some context. Our entertainment pages have long been filled with announcements of some Filipino film professional earning some accolade abroad. But not all festivals have the pedigree that Venice has.

What’s the big deal about Venice?

The Venice International Film Festival is a component of the Venice Biennale, which is a citywide exhibition of various creative arts. It was founded in 1932, and it is the world’s oldest film festival. It is considered one of the “Big Three” film festivals in the world, the other two being Cannes and Berlin. Like any international film festival, it is functionally a hub for the international film industry, with professionals from all over the world converging in Venice to exhibit films, make deals, and generally discuss the state of filmmaking.

Among film Historians, the Venice Film Festival is known for introducing the world at large to Akira Kurosawa. Rashomon was a moderate hit in Kurosawa’s native Japan, and had only a lukewarm reaction from local critics. But it found its way to Venice, and won the Golden Lion, the festival’s prize for best film. Kurosawa became an instant international sensation, and the cinema of Japan (and soon enough, Asia at large) caught the attention of the international film community for the very first time.

This is all to illustrate that Venice is the real deal: a mover in the industry that has helped shape international cinema as a whole. A win in any film festival is to be celebrated, but a win in Venice is special. It is often the first choice festival for many filmmakers to premiere their new films, simply because of the prestige and the history that the festival carries with it. This year’s edition alone had new films from Pablo Larrain (Spencer), Pedro Almodovar (Parallel Mothers), Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog), and Paolo Sorrentino (The Hand of God). This isn’t even counting the films that weren’t in the main competition, which include Denis Villanueve’s new blockbuster adaptation of Dune, Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, and Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho.

Filipino cinema has a history at the Venice International Film Festival. All the way back in 1952, they screened Manuel Conde’s Genghis Khan. The same print that was shown all those years ago was used for the restoration of the movie, which premiered again at Venice sixty years later. In 2009, Pepe Diokno competed in the Orizzonti section of the festival, and won their Lion of the Future award for up-and-coming filmmakers. And in 2016, Lav Diaz won the Golden Lion for Ang Babaeng Humayo

What is the Volpi Cup?

The Volpi Cup is the festival’s acting award. It’s named after Giuseppe Volpi, the founder of the festival. An actor and an actress from all the year’s films in competition is selected by a jury of film professionals. This year’s jury was headed up by Bong Joon-ho, the director of Parasite. Also in the jury were Chloe Zhao, director of Nomadland and the most recent winner of the Academy Award for Best Director, Italian filmmaker Saverio Costanzo, Romanian-German documentarian Alexander Nanau, and actors Virginie Efira, Cynthia Erivo, and Sarah Gadon.

The list of previous winners is an extensive list of acting greats. Counting only the male winners of the cup, Arcilla joins a fraternity of thespians that includes Jimmy Stewart, Toshiro Mifune, Burt Lancaster, Marcella Mastroianni, Liam Neeson, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, and Joaquin Phoenix, just to name a few. It’s probably worth noting that Arcilla is only the fifth Asian to win the award. He joins Japan’s Toshiro Mifune, India’s Naseeruddin Shah, China’s Xia Yu, and Palestine’s Kamel El Basha.

Who was Arcilla’s competition?

The most recognizable names who took part in this year’s competition film are Benedict Cumberbatch (Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog), Antonio Banderas (Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn’s Official Competition), and Oscar Isaac (Paul Schaeder’s The Card Counter). Also of note is Italian actor Toni Servillo, who starred in two films in the competition (The Hand of God and The King of Laughter), and just last year was named by The New York Times as number seven among a list of the twenty-five greatest actors of the 21st century.

Was he really that good?

Well, this kind of thing is always subjective. It depends on who’s on the jury, and what they prize within performances. But we do have a chance to judge for ourselves, as On the Job: The Missing 8 is streaming locally on HBO Go. This new 208-minute movie, along with Matti’s 2013 film On the Job, is being released as a six-episode miniseries on the streaming platform. The first two episodes are a re-edited version of the 2013 film starring Joel Torre, Piolo Pascual and Gerald Anderson. The last four episodes are a split-up version of The Missing 8, and that’s where Arcilla comes into the series. As of this writing, the first three episodes are already out, and the final three will be released over the next three Sundays.

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