Tilda Swinton paid tribute to cinema, “my true motherland” and, closing with a simple “Wakanda Foever” gave a graceful nod to her late college Chadwick Boseman, in a stirring awards speech Wednesday night as the British actress accepted a Golden Lion for career achievement at the Venice International Film Festival.
Venice’s opening night event is rarely an emotional affair but as the first first major film festival held since the coronavirus lockdown, this year was bound to be special.
Before Swinton’s accepted the prize from Venice jury president Cate Blanchett, the audience heard a stirring tribute to Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who died this year, and a powerful message of solidarity from the directors of Europe’s major festivals.
Swinton captured the mood, using her acceptance speech to launch into a full-throated tribute to the art of the big screen.
“Cinema is my happy place, my true motherland,” she said. “Its fellowship is my heart’s family tree. The names on the list of those awarded this honor, meanwhile, they are the names of my masters. They’re the elders of my tribe. The poets of the language I love above others. I sing their songs in the bath. I’m the punk kid film nut hitching a ride to the station to get to the foothills of the heights of their achievements.”
The audience, starved of a film festival experience for months, ate it up. To see a film in Venice, said Swinton, is “pure joy.” She thanked the festival for showing the resilience of cinema and reminding everyone that “we can continue to rely on the great, elastic, wide, wild, bouncy, boundary-less and perpetually inclusive state of cinema.”
The Oscar winner closed with a tribute to the Black Panther himself, Chadwick Boseman: “Wakanda Forever. Nothing but love,” she said, to a standing ovation.
Aside from Swinton and Blanchett, the 77th Venice International Film Festival opened Wednesday with few stars and fewer fans but with a determination that, coronavirus pandemic or not, the show must go on.
By kicking off the first major festival to start since the pandemic, Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera has said he hopes to prove “a restart for cinema” and a sign that the global film industry could bounce back after months of enforced shutdown.
The festival, which runs through Sept. 12, comes at a pivotal moment for the film industry. Cinemas around the world have begun to reopen and box office has, slowly, regained pace, helped by Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, the first studio tentpole to be released post-pandemic. Venice hopes to be a further signal that the international movie business can get going again.
But with coronavirus cases rising again in Italy and elsewhere, there are fears the festival will not be able to pull it off safely. All eyes will be on Barbera over the next two weeks to see if Venice proves more false start than restart.
The festival has put strict safety protocols in place. All attendees must wear face masks at all times, whether inside cinemas or outside on the festival grounds. Temperatures will be checked before entering screenings and every second seat in the cinemas will be left empty. Anyone attending from outside Europe’s Schengen area will have to test for COVID-19 before their departure and again after arriving in Venice.
In one of biggest changes and one that has had an immediate impact, fans will not be allowed near the red carpet. The streets outside the Palazzo del Cinema, Venice’s main cinema, were empty on Wednesday at the 77th Venice International Film Festival kicked off.
There will be fewer big stars in Venice this year, the result of both travel restrictions and a lineup light on major Hollywood productions. But this year’s competition jury includes Blanchett, as president, and American actor Matt Dillon. Spanish director Pedro Almodovar will attend to present his latest, the short film The Human Voice.
“I’m looking forward to having a conversation with adults. I’ve been in conversation with pigs and chickens for the last six months,” Blanchett said, referring to her time in lockdown in Australia.
Among the highlights of Venice’s 18-film-strong competition lineup this year are the U.S. road movie Nomadland from director Chloe Zhao, starring Frances McDormand, Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come, a period drama starring Vanessa Kirby and Casey Affleck, and Gianfranco Rosi’s documentary Notturno, about the Syrian conflict.
Out-of-competition titles include crime comedy The Duke, from Notting Hill director Roger Michell starring Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent, and Greta, a documentary on Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.
In a strong sign of solidarity, the representatives of several other major international festivals, including Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux, Locarno artistic director Lili Hinstin, Vanja Kaludjeric of the Rotterdam Film Festival, Karel Och of Karlovy Vary and José Luis Rebordinos of San Sebastian, joined Barbera on stage to open the Venice festival.
The festival directors will meet this week in Venice with European politicians to make the argument that film festivals play a pivotal role in the European film industry and deserve increased support in these difficult times.
“Film festivals are not only a shop window for the movies that are ready at a certain time,” said Barbera, “but they are cultural centers, places where projects can be developed, where business can be done.” Barbera also called for greater support for cinemas. While streaming platforms such as Netflix have benefited during the lockdown, he said, the role of theaters, “many of which are still closed or will never reopen,” has been diminished. He called the current debate “a battle for cinema and culture” over the “fundamental experience of watching a movie in a theater.”
Fremaux said the fact that Venice was even taking place could give the film industry “a positive thrust if we use it to do what we have to do for cinemas.” He pointed to recent increases at the French box office as a sign of hope.
“In France, viewers are going back to theaters. We have a feeling in France that cinema is supported by the political world. But we need to continue to insist on this. Because culture has a price.”
Blanchett said she had “multifarious” fears regarding the ongoing coronavirus pandemic but said she was hopeful the film industry would find a way to bounce back.
“We have to be courageous every time we start a new project, in a pandemic or not, because it always feels like the first day of school,” she said. “With all great projects, you have to throw everything you know away and risk failure. As an industry, we understand that challenge, it’s in our DNA. If there is an industry that can show resilience, can be more creative and more inventive, it will be the creative arts and the film industry.”