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regular-article-logo Sunday, 03 December 2023

What makes Venice Film Festival special

The Italian film festival knows how to select Oscar-winning candidates

Deutsche Welle Published 30.08.22, 04:12 PM
The Venetian Lido and the historical Excelsior Hotel (r.) offer a spectacular backdrop to the festival

The Venetian Lido and the historical Excelsior Hotel (r.) offer a spectacular backdrop to the festival Deutsche Welle

Cannes is bigger, Berlin is more political, and when it comes to the sheer volume of stars on the red carpet, Toronto is tops. But if you're looking for that old movie magic, no film festival in the world can match Venice.

Partly it's the history. Venice is the oldest film festival on the block, holding the first-ever celebration of cinematic art back in 1932.

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Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was a big movie buff, and one of the first to appreciate the medium's propaganda potential. After World War II, the festival fortunately managed to overcome its fascist roots and opened up to international cinema.

Today, Venice still retains some of that old world charm. VIPs arrive by boat, gliding in to dock behind the Sala Grande or the historic Hotel Excelsior, where you almost expect to see Thomas Mann sunning himself in a deck chair, eyeing Timothee Chalamet as he strolls by on the way to a premiere.

Timothee Chalamet (r.) stars alongside Taylor Russell in Luca Guadagnino's 'Bones & All,' part of the 2022 competition

Timothee Chalamet (r.) stars alongside Taylor Russell in Luca Guadagnino's 'Bones & All,' part of the 2022 competition Deutsche Welle

Partly it's location. Venice has an ever-modern city beat. Critics and film fans cruise to screenings on vaporettos, passing on the way the most stunning skyline Europe has to offer.

If you're lucky enough to find a hotel on the Lido, the Venetian island where the festival takes place, you can walk to the theaters, or ride a bike, gliding along the water like the idle rich on holiday.

But history and location can only take one so far. The movies are a multi-billion-dollar business and international film festivals only stay in the top tier if they continue to serve a purpose: as a spot to discover new talent, as launchpad for a film's Oscar campaign or as a promotional event to boost future box office.

Cannes this year acted as the starting pistol for the return of the Hollywood blockbuster, with swanky red carpet premieres for "Top Gun: Maverick" with Tom Cruise and Baz Luhrmann's glitzy, hip-swinging "Elvis."

The festival's Golden and Silver Lion awards reproduce the Winged Lion of Saint Mark, the symbol of the city of Venice

The festival's Golden and Silver Lion awards reproduce the Winged Lion of Saint Mark, the symbol of the city of Venice Deutsche Welle

Venice knows how to pick Oscar winners

Venice has always been a bit more refined that Cannes. When the festival does invite it a studio tentpole, it tends to have an arthouse edge. See Denis Villeneuve's "Dune" last year — a sci-fi epic that still felt intimate and contemplative. Or 2019 Golden Lion winner "Joker," a comic book movie that owed more to Martin Scorsese's "The King of Comedy" than to previous on-screen depictions of Batman.

The big Hollywood studios know this and tend to offer Venice their more challenging movies, the films they hope will be Oscar contenders. And, under the guidance of long-term artistic director Alberto Barbera, Venice has shown it knows how to pick Academy Award winners.

Best Picture winners Chloe Zhao's "Nomadland," Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water," "Spotlight" from director Tom McCarthy, and Alejandro G. Inarritu's "Birdman" all premiered on the Lido, as did four of the last five Best Director winners.

Before winning her second best director Oscar with 'The Power of the Dog,' Jane Campion was crowned in Venice in 2021

Before winning her second best director Oscar with 'The Power of the Dog,' Jane Campion was crowned in Venice in 2021 Deutsche Welle

Embracing Netflix

Then there's Netflix. While Cannes, with the backing of the all-powerful French cinema lobby, continues to boycott films from streaming services, Venice has no problem with picking films that will go out online instead of in theaters.

It was the first big festival to program a Netflix movie in competition — Cary Joji Fukunaga's "Beasts of No Nation" back in 2015 — and has, on average, picked at least two-three Netflix titles per year ever since.

2021 looked like a high-water mark for Netflix in Venice, with Jane Campion's "The Power of the Dog" starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Maggie Gyllenhaal's "The Lost Daughter" with Olivia Coleman and "The Hand of God" from Oscar-winning Italian director Paolo Sorrentino ("The Great Beauty").

But then, Barbera went one further for 2022, with four Netflix movies, including the first-ever Netflix film to open Venice: Noah Baumbach's "White Noise," an adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel starring Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig. Also in the running for this year's Golden Lion from the streamer are Alejandro G. Inarritu's Mexican epic "Bardo"; Andrew Dominik's Marylin Monroe biopic "Blonde," featuring Cuban star Ana de Armas (of "Knives Out" and "No Time to Die" fame); and the highly-anticipated French drama "Athena" from director Romain Gavras.

Instead of shunning the streamers, Venice saw early that Netflix was the future.

'White Noise,' starring Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, opens the festival — the first Netflix original film to do so

'White Noise,' starring Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, opens the festival — the first Netflix original film to do so Deutsche Welle

Arthouse surprises

But Venice's true appeal has always been its left-field surprises. Such as Audrey Diwan's 2021 Golden Lion winner "Happening," a prescient tale of abortion and women's rights. Or "Quo Vadis, Aida?" by Jasmila Zbanic, who offered a powerful depiction of the Srebrenica massacre, and "Apples," a gently funny, surprisingly touching satire from first-time Greek director Christos Nikou, both from 2020.

Venice, which opens August 31 and runs through September 10, kicks off the fall film season, traditionally the sweet spot for "grown up" movies. Arthouse distributors, which have so far had a tough time getting their (often older) audience back into theaters following COVID lockdowns, are counting on the Italian festival to get cinema enthusiasts off the couch and back into cinemas.

Indie treat: Tilda Swinton stars in Joanna Hogg's 'The Eternal Daughter'

Indie treat: Tilda Swinton stars in Joanna Hogg's 'The Eternal Daughter' Deutsche Welle

The 2022 Lido line-up has plenty to appeal to indie audiences, including Darren Aronofsky's "The Whale" with Brendan Fraser; Joanna Hogg's Tilda Swinton-starrer "The Eternal Daughter"; Florian Zeller's "The Son," the French director's follow-up to his Oscar-winning debut "The Father"; "Bones & All" from "Call Me By Your Name" director Luca Guadagnino; Irish dramedy "The Banshees of Inisherin" from "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" director Martin McDonagh; "Tár," a rare new film from US director Todd Field ("Little Children," "In the Bedroom") starring Cate Blanchett as a driven classical conductor.

If Cannes, with "Top Gun" and "Elvis," proved that fans of popcorn movies were hungry to return to the movies, this year's Venice Film Festival will be the big test to see if the arthouse crowd is willing to follow them.

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