Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 October 2020

Venice Film Festival begins: the industry's first big in-person event since coronavirus shutdowns

The scaled-back programme has kicked off

Spectators at a socially distanced screening of the docufilm 'Molecole', made in Venice during lockdown at the 77th annual Venice International Film Festival, on September 1, 2020. EPA
Spectators at a socially distanced screening of the docufilm 'Molecole', made in Venice during lockdown at the 77th annual Venice International Film Festival, on September 1, 2020. EPA

Venice Film Festival kicks off on Wednesday, marking the first major in-person cinema showcase of the coronavirus era.

Italian director Andrea Segre, whose documentary of an ethereally empty Venice during lockdown was screened on Tuesday ahead of the festival’s opening, said the event is sending the message that, despite the risks and complications, “we need theatres for cinema".

“It's like if you say to a painter that he can show his painting, or his fresco, only through the web," Segre said. “It's exactly the same for us: without the theatre, our art has a handicap, it has a big handicap."

But the 77th iteration of the world’s oldest film festival looks nothing like its predecessors.

The public is barred from the red carpet, Hollywood stars and films are largely absent and face masks are required indoors at all times.

The strict measures are evidence of the hard line Venice and the surrounding Veneto region took to contain the virus when it first emerged in the canal city in late February. Unlike neighbouring Lombardy, which became the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak in Europe, Veneto largely kept the virus under control with early local lockdowns and wide testing.

Spectators enjoy a socially-distanced screening of the the docufilm 'Molecole', made in the Venice during lockdown at the 77th annual Venice International Film Festival, in Venice, Italy, September 1, 2020. EPA
Spectators enjoy a socially distanced screening of the docu-film 'Molecole', made in the Venice during lockdown at the 77th annual Venice International Film Festival. EPA

La Biennale chief Roberto Cicutto said the decision to hold the festival at all was an important sign of rebirth for Venice and the film industry, and said the experience will serve as a “laboratory” for future cultural gatherings.

“It will be an experiment on the ground of how to confront an important event” in the Covid era, he said in presenting this year’s Venice line-up.

The festival, which will run from Wednesday, September 2, to Saturday, September 12, marks Italy’s return to the art world stage after it became the first country in the West to be locked down due to the coronavirus outbreak. Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible 7, had been filming in Venice in February, but had to pull out as the virus took hold in the country.

Italy’s strict 10-week lockdown largely tamed the virus, but infections are now rebounding after summer vacations. Health authorities are scrambling to test passengers at airports and seaports to try to identify imported cases before they can spread.

epa08640264 The director of the Venice Film Festival Alberto Barbera (R) with the president of the Venice Biennial Roberto Cicutto prior the screening of the Andrea Segre docufilm 'Molecole', made in the Venice during lockdown for the coronavirus presented in the Sala Darsena and at the PalaBiennale at the 77th annual Venice International Film Festival, in Venice, Italy, 01 September 2020. EPA/STR
The director of the Venice Film Festival Alberto Barbera, right, with the president of the Venice Biennial Roberto Cicutto prior to the screening of 'Molecole'. EPA

Guests to the film festival are not exempt. If they arrive from outside Europe’s open-border Schengen area, they will be tested upon arrival. Australian director Roderick Mackay, premiering his Outback frontier drama The Furnace, has been quarantining in Italy so he could participate in person, his representative said. The Furnace stars Egypt's Ahmed Malek.

Other measures to limit the spread of the virus include reserved seats, spaced apart, for all screenings and a requirement to wear masks even during screenings and while outdoors.

“Clearly we have to abide by anti-Covid measures,” said Paola Mar, Venice’s culture chief. “Each of us has a personal responsibility. And if all of us do our jobs, we can limit the harm.”

But she said the show must go on, given the importance of the film festival and the Biennale’s other longer-term cultural contributions to Venice’s economy, which depends almost entirely on tourism.

Restrictions on travel from the US to Europe have meant that Hollywood films, which often use Venice as a springboard for other festivals and ultimately the Oscars, are essentially no-shows this year.

That means no sightings of Venice regulars George Clooney and Brad Pitt arriving by water taxi, no red carpet photo ops with Lady Gaga, who premiered A Star is Born at the 2018 event, or Joaquin Phoenix, whose Joker won Venice’s top prize, the Golden Lion, in 2019 before going on to Oscar glory.

This year’s slightly reduced line-up still contains in-competition films from a variety of countries, but will be a mostly European affair. Italian films are well represented, including the first Italian opening-night film in years, the out-of-competition family drama Lacci by Daniele Luchetti.

Two Italian documentaries filmed during lockdown are making their debuts. In addition to Segre’s Molecoles, director Luca Guadagnino, whose documentary about Italian shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo is an official out-of-competition film, offered up a last-minute short Fiori, Fiori, Fiori!, about reconnecting with his childhood friends in Sicily during the lockdown.

Spanish director Pedro Almodovar is premiering his first-ever English-language film, The Human Voice, which he filmed and edited in the weeks after Spain’s lockdown ended. The short film, an adaptation of the Jean Cocteau play of the same name, stars Tilda Swinton, who along with Hong Kong director Ann Hui will be picking up a Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award in Venice this year.

Cate Blanchett heads the main jury, which added Matt Dillon at the last minute after Romanian director Cristi Puiu pulled out.

But other A-list celebrities are largely staying away or participating in press conferences and panels via Zoom.

Updated: September 2, 2020 11:44 AM

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