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I was ready for the 2020 Venice Film Festival to be a disaster.
Holding a major festival in what, just a few months back, was a global hotspot for coronavirus infections, felt incredibly risky. After Cannes, Telluride and others canceled, Venice’s plans to push ahead looked foolhardy. Even if a festival could be held safely, the logistics of ensuring proper hygiene — mandatory mask-wearing in cinemas, every second seat kept free, online booking, and temperature checks — threatened chaos.
Well, it is still early, but judging by the first few days, the Venice experiment has been a resounding success. Yes, there are fewer people, fewer films, and fewer stars. No, wearing a mask in a cinema will never feel normal. But if the goal of holding the 77th Venice International Film Festival was to show the world the movie business can bounce back, you have to say: mission accomplished.
“It is very strange to be here, with the masks and everything, but I think it is very important to have Venice now because somehow the film industry has to restart,” said Greek director Christos Nikou, whose debut Apples opened the festival’s Orizzonti sidebar on Wednesday. “We all know that our industry was hit more by COVID than other industries. Most of the theaters have been closed in the past few months. But I’m optimistic we will find a way out of this.”
Venice is showing a way out. Or at least showing a way that film festivals can be held during this pandemic. The safety measures, from online booking to temperature checks, have been implemented smoothly with little disruption and no major hassle (although booking seats at screenings and press conferences 72 hours in advance requires a degree of planning this film journalist is unaccustomed to). Day two did see a couple of bottlenecks at the entrance to the festival area, where police bag checks held up dozens of attendees scrambling to get to the 8:30 a.m. screening of Pedro Almodovar’s The Human Voice. Things got heated, and a particularly loud German reviewer barked out “Don’t talk! Work!” at the police doing the checks, but everyone running for the screening made it in the end (the festival, usually obsessively punctual about start times, waited an extra 10 minutes to let stragglers in).
Venice is also being helped by a generous portion of goodwill from the industry, which has everything to gain if this experiment works. “It’s … miracolo!” said Cate Blanchett, president of this year’s competition jury, at her opening day press conference. “I really do applaud all of the organizers who have come together with real resilience and a sense of collaboration. We have to reopen safely, tentatively. It is a supremely challenging moment and it will continue to be as we continue to re-emerge.”
“I think it’s so important that Venice is happening now,” said Italian actress Anna Foglietta, who hosted Wednesday’s opening night ceremony. “Because people need emotions now. They need empathy and hope for the future. I think that Venice can represent all of these things.”
Almodovar, at his press conference for The Human Voice, simply told the gathered press corp to “tell people to go back to the cinema” to help struggling theaters.
In another positive sign for the industry, there were several deals, if not done on the Lido, then at least unveiled here, suggesting sales companies are betting on a Venice publicity bump. There is even some mild awards-season buzz gathering around a few of the festival titles, in particular Chloe Zhao’s Nomandland and Regina King’s directorial debut, One Night in Miami, both of which premiere next week.
So, no, Venice 2020 doesn’t feel normal. But after months of lockdown, it does feel like a start.
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