VENICE (AP) – Venice is reclaiming its place as a top cultural destination with the opening of the Venice Film Festival – the first major personal cinema showcase of the coronavirus era after Cannes was canceled and other international festivals chose to go largely online this year.
Italian director Andrea Segre, whose documentary of an ethereal empty Venice was screened during lockdown Tuesday, said the festival is sending the message that despite the risks and complications, “we need theaters for the cinema.”
“It’s like telling a painter that he can only show his painting or his fresco via the web,” Segre said in an interview at the Lido. “For us it is exactly the same: without theater our art has a handicap, it has a major handicap.”
But don’t be fooled. The 77th edition of the world’s oldest film festival, opening Wednesday, is nothing like its predecessors.
The public is banned from the red carpet, Hollywood stars and movies are largely absent, and face masks are mandatory indoors.
Those strict measures are testament to the hard line taken by Venice and the surrounding Veneto region to contain the virus when it first emerged in the lagoon city in late February. Unlike neighboring Lombardy, which became the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe, Veneto kept the virus largely under control with early local lockdowns and extensive testing once the virus became widespread.
La Biennale chief Robert Cicutto said the decision to hold the festival at all was a major sign of renaissance for Venice and the film industry, and said the experience at the Lido will serve as a ‘laboratory’ for future cultural gatherings.
“It will be an experiment to face a major event” in the COVID era, he said at the presentation of this year’s Venice line-up.
The festival from September 2-12 marks Italy’s return to the world stage of art after becoming the first country in the West to be slammed by COVID. Even Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible 7”, then filming in Venice for three weeks, had to pull out.
Italy’s strict 10-week lockout has largely suppressed the virus, but infections are now recovering after the summer vacations. Health authorities are struggling to test passengers at airports and seaports to identify imported cases before they can spread.
Guests of the glamorous film festival are not exempt. If they come from outside the open border Schengen area of Europe, they are tested on arrival. Australian director Roderick Mackay, who premiered his Outback frontier drama “The Furnace”, has been quarantined in Italy so he could participate in person, his representative said.
Other measures to limit contamination include reserved seats spaced apart for all screenings and the mandatory wearing of masks, even during screenings and outdoors.
“It is clear that we have to comply with anti-COVID measures,” said Paola Mar, Venice’s head of culture. “Each of us has a personal responsibility. And if we all do our jobs, we can limit the damage. ”
But she said the show should 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 not shows this year.
That means there are no sightings of Venice regulars George Clooney and Brad Pitt arriving by water taxi, no photos of the red carpet with Lady Gaga, who premiered ‘A Star is Born’ here, or Joaquin Phoenix, whose ‘Joker’ won Venice’s top prize, the Golden Lion, last year before going to Oscar glory.
This year’s somewhat limited line-up will still feature films from different countries in competition, but will mainly be a European affair. Italian films are well represented, including the first Italian opening film in years, the out of competition family drama “Lacci” by Daniele Luchetti.
Two Italian documentaries filmed during lockdown make their debut. In addition to Segre’s “Molecules”, director Luca Guadagnino, whose documentary about Italian shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo is an official out-of-competition film, offered a last-minute short “Fiori, Fiori, Fiori!” Out about reconnecting with his youth. friends in Sicily during the lockdown.
Spanish director Pedro Almodovar will premiere his first-ever English-language film, “The Human Voice,” which he filmed and edited in the weeks after Spain’s closure ended. The short, adapted from Jean Cocteau’s play of the same name, stars Tilda Swinton, who this year, along with Hong Kong director Ann Hui, takes home a Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award in Venice.
Cate Blanchett leads the head jury, adding Matt Dillon at the last minute after Romanian director Cristi Puiu stepped down.
But other A-list celebrities largely stay away or participate in press conferences and panels through Zoom. Venice itself has a long way to go to recover from the economic devastation of a pandemic, the halt of cruise ships and a lockdown on a city beloved by the jet set.
Venice was already brought to its knees by the historic “acqua alta” floods in November last year, which raised deep questions about how Italy’s lagoon city will function when climate change and rising sea levels pose a growing threat.
“The city has not been operating since November,” said gondolier Maurizio Carlotto. “There is nothing. Nothing at all. The hotels that are open are half empty. When you look at the restaurants at night, they are empty.”
“To get Venice, and tourism in general, back on track, we need an end to this virus,” he said, looking out at a horribly empty canal. “They need to find the antidote.”