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Venice last year felt like a miracle. Just pulling off an in-person festival, safely, in the midst of a global pandemic was such an incredible feat, all of us lucky enough to have experienced it felt overwhelmingly privileged and grateful.
But that was then. This year, Venice in some ways has become a victim of its own success. After showing the world how to do a COVID-era event, expectations for this year’s festival are sky-high.
The challenge of bridging that gap — between the expectation that Venice can mark a return to “business as usual” and the reality that COVID is still very much with us — is playing out on the ground on the Lido, as the festival tries to deliver another safe environment with many more fans and attendees. The crowds this year look close to pre-pandemic levels, and the lines for accreditation and screenings snake along the Lido. Already the grumbling has begun from critics and fans frustrated by sold-out screenings and news conferences. There was a minor scandal Thursday when long security lines meant several critics missed the first few minutes of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God and Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter.
Much like the entire film industry, Venice feels precariously balanced between hope — that cinemas will reopen, that movies are back! — and the fear that a resurgent coronavirus will put us into a Groundhog Day loop of cinema shutdowns and delayed releases. The news Wednesday that Paramount has again pushed Tom Cruise tentpoles Top Gun: Maverick and Mission: Impossible 7 back to September 2022 raised concerns that other studios will follow suit.
That mix of optimism and trepidation played out at Wednesday’s opening-night ceremony. Fans swarmed the red carpet, held back only by the COVID wall erected to ensure social distancing, hoping to catch a glimpse of the stars, including Penélope Cruz, Isabelle Huppert and Roberto Benigni. But the mood inside, with all the famous faces hiding behind their required masks, was downbeat. It was if people didn’t want to set their hopes too high. It was up to Benigni, who received Venice’s lifetime achievement award, to put the fest back in festival.
His acceptance speech for his Golden Lion award was full-on Benigni: a nonstop, breathless celebration of cinema — at one point he rattled through every single director he worked with — ending with a grand romantic gesture to his wife and creative partner Nicoletta Braschi. It brought the audience to its feet in a standing ovation. They would be back up again two hours later, wildly cheering Pedro Almodóvar’s opening-night film, Parallel Mothers.
The next few days will determine whether Venice 2021 goes down as a triumph or a disappointment. But, despite the delays, the minor frustrations and the worries about what will happen next, Venice has gotten off to a better start than anyone could have hoped for.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 3 daily issue at the Venice International Film Festival.
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