We should all watch Happening, before talking about abortion

Happening (Événement) is a timeless film. Set in the Catholic and conservative France of the 60s, a young student falls pregnant and is confronted with a harsh reality: a health care system that blames women, the judgmental and moralistic stares of other girls at university, the evasion of responsibility by the father or the potential baby, and no one to talk to. She also has to deal with the drastic drop in her college performance, as she contracted “that disease that only women have. That turns them into housewives,” as she will find the courage to declare to her literature professor. 

If we lived in a fair, democratic world, with real gender equality reigns, Happening would be a wonderful historical film. It would be one of those films that grandmothers show granddaughters to make them reflect and appreciate how lucky they are to live in a different era. 

“The recent roadblocks to legal abortion instituted in Texas – wrote film critic David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter – make Happening resonate even more strongly. Not that Audrey Diwan’s intensely intimate chronicle of a young woman’s struggle for control of her body requires recent titles to make it relevant or compelling.”

Happening and the award at the Venice Film Festival 

Happening might have been a film celebrating the feminist cause, emphasising how much the long years of battle have achieved. Maybe it wouldn’t have even won at Venice Film Festival. Very few historical films win festivals.  Instead, that Golden Lion was awarded by the jury unanimously. Because more than reflecting on the past, it seems to reflect on current reality. That prize was awarded to honour the courage of the French-Lebanese writer and director Audrey Diwan, who was able to bring to the screen the refined and magically intimate drama written by Annie Ernaux in her autobiographical novel Happening, from which the film is based. 

It was awarded to recognise the impeccable performance by Anamaria Vartolomei, in the role of a young girl whose plans for the future are put in danger because of an unwanted pregnancy. It was also awarded to send the message that cinema, like other arts, has the duty and the power to touch delicate and taboo subjects and create debates to raise awareness and sensitivity among the public. “There’s one thing that never changes – told director Audrey Diwan to Movieplayerabortion is an issue, unfortunately, that is always relevant, because we see it every day, depending on the country, the law takes steps backwards”.

Abortion, from the screen to reality

Happening‘s story is not as recent as those of millions of women in Texas who will no longer have access to legal abortions, except within six weeks, a period in which, likely, they wouldn’t even know they are pregnant. So are the stories of so many Italian women, who live in a country where, despite Law 194 declaring abortion legal since May 1978, 69% of gynaecologists refuse to give abortions, as found by the Ministry of Health in 2018. Also, there are women who live in one of those regions where the percentage of objectors is over 80% and doesn’t only include gynaecologists, but also anesthesiologists and medical aid personnel. Regions in which, it is basically impossible to have an abortion. 

Happening does not make propaganda but describes abortion

Although Happening wasn’t meant to be a political or abortionist film, it still sends a strong message to Italy and the whole world, in a race against time, marked by the passing of weeks, which makes abortion increasingly risky and complicated for the protagonist. A message written, interpreted and shouted by women because we’ve seen men talking about these topics, seeking control over the female body even in artistic representation too often. As Anamaria Vartolomei stressed in an interview with Movieplayer: “I think that too many men have appropriated women’s bodies, and that the time has finally come for women to decide for themselves”.

But just as Happening was honoured at Venice Film Festival, the anti-abortion law that made the whole world shake was being passed in Texas. As the actors walked down the red carpet and film critics started evaluating the film’s cinematography, Pope Francis was defining abortion as “the murder of children,” putting it into a gruesome comparison with the horrors of the Holocaust: “Last century,” Bergoglio declared, “the whole world was scandalised by what the Nazis did to cure the purity of the race. Today we do the same but with white gloves.” A comparison defined as misleading by the writer and feminist activist Monica Lanfranco who wrote in Il Fatto Quotidiano: “War is not abortion, and the two words in the same sentence, pronounced by a man who often shows sensitivity to injustice, jar like nails in the flesh of Christ”.

The prestigious international jury at the Venice Film Festival has made a courageous choice, taking the great responsibility of awarding a film that does not aim to make propaganda, nor to influence people’s minds, but only to describe the life of a young woman who has been denied the right to choose for her own body and who, floundering between tides of indifference and judgment, in complete solitude, tries her best to regain control over her own future. 

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