Venice Film Festival preview

Can ‘Joker,’ Brad Pitt, Scarlett Johansson and ‘Birth of a Nation’s Nate Parker continue the festival’s hot streak?

By MICHAEL PHILLIPS
August 26, 2019 22:24
Venice Film Festival preview

WARNER BROTHERS’ ‘Joker’ will premiere at the 76th Venice Film Festival. . (photo credit: COURTESY OF WARNER BROS. PICTURES/DC COMICS)

Begun in 1932, the Venice International Film Festival can be described the way Guys and Dolls described gambler Nathan Detroit’s livelihood. It’s the oldest established permanent floating crap game in the business.

The festival’s headquarters, the Palazzo del Cinema, not far from the swank Hotel Excelsior facing the Adriatic Sea, is located on the Lido, a beach-lined, gelato-intensive 11-km.-long island across the water from Venice proper.

Mussolini’s Fascist regime launched the film component of the Venice Biennale on the Lido to “bring prestige and tourists to Italy,” as the critic Kenneth Tynan wrote in 1965. “And to keep the latter in Venice after the bad weather had begun.”

The weather can be chancy in late August and early September; it rained all over the world premiere of A Star is Born last year. Lightning zapped one of the auditoriums during the premiere, causing a brief delay in the star-crossed love affair on screen. On the other hand: When it’s sunny, as Tynan wrote in a huff for the Los Angeles Times, “you begin to feel that there is a paradox in the very phrase ‘film festival.’ Isn’t it perverse and inherently unfestive to go to a seaside resort and spend most of one’s day in the dark?”

In recent years the Venice festival, which opens its 76th edition Wednesday, has become a weirdly reliable springboard for movies hoping to stick a landing several months later in the vicinity of the Academy Awards. Any major festival’s Oscar-predictive track record is largely a matter of luck, like Nathan Detroit’s dice game. But the list of top 21st-century Academy Award winners making their world premieres in Venice includes Spotlight, Birdman and The Shape of Water, plus enormous global successes on the order of Gravity and La La Land.

“I’m always excited to see the Venice competition lineup,” says Mimi Plauche, artistic director of the Chicago International Film Festival held in October. She cites its savvy combination of “end-of-the-year favorites” and “unexpected gems.” And even with its devotion to star power, the festival programmers carve out just enough room for some of the world’s most distinctive stylists behind the camera.

This year, Plauche says she’s especially intrigued by new work from Kore-eda Hirokazu (The Truth, starring Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke, the August 28 opening-night selection); Roy Andersson (About Endlessness); Steven Soderbergh (The Laundromat, with Meryl Streep in a wry Panama Papers docudrama); and Lou Ye (Saturday Fiction, starring Gong Li).

Plauche adds that she’s “looking forward to discovering this year’s Roma (a 2018 Venice alum), The Shape of Water (Golden Lion winner at Venice, as was Roma) and La La Land (which handed Venice festival awards to director Damien Chazelle and Emma Stone, foreshadowing the Oscars). “All were films we presented at the Chicago International Film Festival,” she notes.

The Venice 2019 opener, The Truth, is being released in the US by IFC Films and will make its Chicago premiere at the Chicago festival.

For moviegoers who just want to make America great again, there’ll be plenty of familiar, A-list domestic faces on the Lido red carpet.

A partial list: Kristen Stewart (star of Seberg, premiering out of competition, about actress Jean Seberg), Brad Pitt (Ad Astra, a
competition title directed by James Gray); Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro (representing Joker, also in competition, director Todd Phillips’ buzzy, R-rated portrait of a comic book icon as failed stand-up comic); Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver (Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach’s divorce drama competing for the Golden Lion); Gael Garcia Bernal (Ema, in competition, from Jackie director Pablo Larrain); Nate Parker (American Skin, the controversy-hounded director’s follow-up to The Birth of a Nation); and Penelope Cruz and Edgar Ramirez (in director Olivier Assayas’s latest, the espionage tale Wasp Network).

Meantime, Roman Polanski, starring in his own private version of The Fugitive, may return to the Lido. Certainly his latest film, An Officer and a Spy, is returning; it snagged a competition berth. Of the 21 competition titles, two were directed by women: Australian director Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth and, from Saudi Arabia, Haifaa Al-Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate.

Lifetime achievement awards at Venice this year go to Julie Andrews and writer-director Pedro Almodovar.

So that’s pretty starry. Venice has regained much of its lost movie-star sparkle in recent years. (In Tynan’s 1965 report, the LA Times headline read “Not-So-Festive Festival.”) Artistic director Barbera, nearing the end of his tenure, has restored both the festival’s news value and its cinematic bona fides. It’s not competing with Cannes or Berlin exactly, but with Cannes in particular it has proven to be a formidable alternative for filmmakers looking to unveil their creations in a big, photogenic way.

We have Venice to thank for the very existence of the Cannes festival. In 1938, under the gun from Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, Venice festival jurors hastily revised their awards list so that the top prize went to Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, an adoring celebration of the summer 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. The French, outraged at the political interference, responded by creating their own ambitious international film gathering in Cannes the following year, scheduled to compete directly with Venice. (The 1939 Cannes launch was canceled after one screening, owing to Hitler’s invasion of Poland; the festival resumed after World War II.)

I’m shallow enough to admit it: Part of the Venice festival appeal is in the approach. If you take a speedboat taxi from the airport to the Lido, you can get dropped off at the dock behind the Hotel Excelsior, where all the paparazzi hang out, waiting (as they were last year) for Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper to step off their watercraft in their finery and smile for the cameras. My own taxi was right behind theirs. They were quite clearly the stars of A Star is Born; I was starring in my own, ruminative drama, “A Critic is Jet-Lagged.”


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