It’s a festival like no other in terms of its reputation for launching Oscar winners.
Birdman, Black Swan, Joker, The Shape of Water, Gravity, La La Land – the stars of these films launched their quest for the Academy Awards by shimmering on the red carpet at Venice in the late summer heat.
This year though, Venice is a festival like no other simply in terms of choosing to go ahead as a physical event after a summer where some of its main rivals, top-tier festivals such as Cannes and Telluride, had to be cancelled.
But there’ll be no screaming fans allowed near the red carpet, no queues for the best film tickets, as booking is online only, while temperature checks and masks will be enforced in half-full theatres.
But there will be stars.
British actress Tilda Swinton and American actor Matt Dillon are amongst a handful of high-profile names that are expected to walk a (socially distanced) red carpet.
Is it the return of the film festival, or the ghost of the old film festival?
"It’s certainly making us ask what the purpose of these kinds of events is," says Jason Solomons, a BBC Radio presenter and host of film podcast Seen Anything Good Lately? "Can we glamour our way out of COVID-19, or does asking questions of stars dressed in designer clothes seem a little tasteless these days?
“Perhaps Venice thinks that the magic of the movies will brush the cobwebs away, but the trouble is, you need a magical movie to do that. Movies about Hungarian truck drivers, for example, just aren’t going to cut it,” Solomans adds.
Last year Venice awarded its top Golden Lion prize to Todd Philips and Joaquin Phoenix for Joker, which competed alongside the other North American big hitters -- Marriage Story by Noah Baumbach, space blockbuster Ad Astra starring Brad Pitt, and The Laundromat directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Meryl Streep, which was a satirical look at the Panama Papers scandal.
This year there are two North American films in competition -- Nomadland, based on Jessica Bruder’s novel about older Americans travelling the country for work, which is directed by Chloe Zhao and starring Frances McDormand; and New Yorker Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come, with Casey Affleck starring in a drama about 19th-century life on the American frontier. Unsurprisingly, none of the North American cast will be coming to Venice.
The festival is actually opening with an Italian film for the first time in a decade. Lacci, a family drama by veteran director Daniele Lucchetti. While the number of purely European productions remains unchanged in competition this year – as in 2019, about half of them were financed on this continent – does this mean there’s a greater opportunity to grab headlines?
“Certainly, with fewer of the big American films and stars heading to Venice, more attention will be paid to the European films. But in what way?” questions Wendy Mitchell, Contributing Editor to trade daily Screen International.
“The critics on the ground in Venice always pay attention to these movies. But a Lithuanian arthouse film can’t replace the pictures of George Clooney in a boat headed to the Venice Lido on the front pages of a global newspaper. The kinds of big distribution deals that can happen with those Oscar films launched in Venice won't necessarily trickle down to smaller European films,” Mitchell maintains.
Nevertheless, first-time directors such as Portuguese-born Londoner Ana Rocha de Sousa are just grateful that the festival is going ahead. She’s presenting her first feature film, 'Listen', in the Orrizonti section of the festival, its main sidebar competition.
It’s the story of two Portuguese parents in London battling British social services to keep their family together, and the director says the festival exposure is vital.
“It’s such an honour to have the opportunity to share the film with the world, not only considering it’s my debut, but because of these difficult times we’re facing in 2020," she tells Euronews.
"I admire the courage it takes to keep a festival like Venice up during pandemic times like this. I consider it a very brave decision and as a filmmaker I am really grateful for it. We must fight COVID-19 with responsibility, but we also must keep living, as long as we are consciously respecting the rules.”
Women in film
De Sousa, who shot Listen with a largely female film crew, also seems to be part of another substantial difference to Venice this year – its much-increased female directing presence.
Possibly stung by criticism that only two women featured in the main competition last year, in 2020 it has eight female directors, and the jury is headed by actress Cate Blanchett.
Of course, at this point, no one knows whether Venice will be a success, but success is probably defined in terms of getting to the end of the festival without negative headlines that it has helped increase Italy’s COVID-19 figures. Its greatest fear – and those of all film festivals hoping to follow in its footsteps and hold an event – must be that it ends up being proclaimed the epicentre of a new outbreak.