Although the Cannes Film Festival is undoubtedly the queen of all and has even been a Hollywood favourite for a while, Venice, despite having had a troubled history, caused mostly by Italy’s turbulent political events, has in recent times been the launching pad of those movies which clinched the mightiest Oscars. Spotlight in 2016 and Birdman in 2015 walked away with big wins on the big night, and a year before that, the George Clooney-Sandra Bullock starrer, Gravity, netted a whole lot of those trophies.
This year, as Venice Festival Director Alberto Barbera said, the film to open the 11-day event here on the Lido on Wednesday, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, may well go on to be yet another Oscar winner. Barbera described the movie as “a wonderful film, a classical musical, and a marvellous tribute to American cinema from a contemporary perspective”.
Barbera added that “I’ve been lucky for the past three years; I couldn’t have imagined when I first saw Gravity or Birdman they would win all those Oscars”. Yes, he made a lot of effort to attract big Hollywood players.
He told the media during recent interviews: “We want Venice to be an important launching pad, the opening of the season, the real beginning of the race for the Oscar. We have invested a lot: we renovated the theatres, improved the quality of the screenings, as well as the general location and the services we are able to offer industry visitors.”
This year, Venice has opened a new theatre on the ground opposite the Casino, which had remained like a huge crater, literally an eyesore, for five years. Initially, when the ground was dug up for fresh construction, it was found to have large sheets of asbestos -- considered carcinogenic. So, the festival quickly covered them up and left them for a long time. One does not know what happened to the asbestos, but a swanky new auditorium, Sala Giardino, stands there today.
Observers feel that Barbera has been a major factor in Venice’s ability to tide over the competition posed by Toronto and Telluride -- whose dates just about clash with the Lido event. Even in 2012, Venice was kind of tottering, but somehow Barbera appears to have steadied his festival. Hollywood majors are now convinced that the relatively expensive Venice -- certainly compared with Toronto -- is worth that extra buck to send in their movies.
Also, Toronto has become huge with 300 films playing there, and Hollywood -- which despite being the city’s neighbour -- feels that American works can get lost in that crowd. Venice, on the other hand, is a smaller, compact festival, where it is so much more easy to meet people and conduct business. And the island of Lido (off mainland Venice) where all the action takes places for those 11 days of the festival, is quite small -- where everybody can run into everybody else.
With Venice all set to start today with a Hollywood biggie, La La Land, there is a feeling here that this is the best of times for American cinema. Giving company to this movie will be other American titles, such as The Light Between Oceans, the heartrending work starring Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander, Terrence Malick’s documentary, Voyage of Time, Nocturnal Animals, the second film from fashion designer Tom Ford, and Arrival, a science-fiction thriller helmed by Denis Villeneuve.
The question now is, will Venice pose a threat to Cannes. Not now, certainly, for the French Riviera Festival is firmly entrenched on a high pedestal. It is difficult to dislodge it from there. And Cannes’ prestige is also built on its highly impressive market. No wonder that even some the great Italian directors like Paola Sorrentino, Nanni Moretti and Matteo Garrone fly to Cannes, not to Venice.
Barbera has reportedly called this as some sort of “prejudice”. Be that as it may, Sorrentino’s The Young Pope with Jude Law -- which will screen at Venice -- may well break the ice. It may pave the way for increased Italian industry participation in the time to come.
Finally, Barbera is also being viewed as bold. He has picked Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. This is Gibson’s first directorial venture after a series of controversies, which included his antisemitic comment during his 2006 arrest. Hacksaw Ridge, one hears, is a great piece of work that needs to be watched -- controversies withstanding.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Venice Film Festival.)