How the Venice Film Festival Lineup Reflects Italy's Culture of Toxic Masculinity

Illustrations by Amber Day

With only one woman in the competition lineup for the second year in a row, fest organizers insist gender parity isn't their responsibility, but critics point to a larger problem born out of old-world Italian attitudes that have stubbornly refused to change with the times.

On Aug. 10, a group of European women’s organizations sent an open letter to Paolo Baratta, the president of the Venice Film Festival’s parent organization, the Venice Biennale, calling on the fest to follow other international film events in signing a pledge agreeing to transparency in festival submissions, and eventual gender parity in selection committees and management boards.

The letter came on the heels of the news that, for the second year in a row, Venice’s competition lineup includes just one female director among its 21 competition titles (Australia’s Jennifer Kent, director of The Nightingale). Asked to explain his choices after the lineup announcement, festival director Alberto Barbera, as he did last year, doubled down, telling THR he would “rather quit” than abide by a gender parity quota. Barbera put the blame on the film industry as a whole, from film schools to producers and distributors, saying too few good films are being made by women. “Venice can’t do anything about that. It’s not up to us to change the situation,” he said. 

Barbera’s argument struck many as tone deaf, especially as other A-list film events like Cannes, Toronto and Sundance have responded — albeit slowly — to the #MeToo era by addressing female representation in their programs.

But with an otherwise strong lineup and its newfound prominence as the unofficial launch of awards season, Venice is under far more scrutiny than it was just a few years ago. And now, with the event seemingly snubbing women directors for the second year straight, some wonder if Venice’s imbalance is in fact a natural outgrowth of old-world Italian attitudes about gender equality that have stubbornly refused to change with the times.

“The culture of southern Europe absolutely has an influence [on the festival], absolutely,” says Danish director Susanne Bier (In a Better World), president of the virtual reality jury in Venice this year. “Traditionally, it is less equal there, so I think the issues are felt more strongly there than elsewhere.”

Indeed, Italy has one of the worst records in Europe when it comes to gender parity across all segments of society. Its proportion of women in the workplace — less than half — is one of the lowest of any developed economy, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And despite women being as educated as men, they spend more time doing unpaid work such as taking care of children and the elderly. According to a 2017 study by the World Economic Forum, 62 percent of Italian women’s work each day is unpaid (the highest percentage in Western Europe).

Piera Detassis, editor-in-chief of cinema magazine CIAK and president of the Academy of Italian Cinema, says sexual harassment is a given for women in Italy. “Every woman I know has lost out on some kind of professional opportunity because they resisted an inappropriate situation at work. It’s happened to me twice,” she says, adding that the worst incident she endured was during her academic career, when a male professor told her she was “very talented” but “the ‘real problem is that you have tits. It would be better for you to cut them out.’ ” 

Italian women have come forward in the wake of #MeToo to accuse powerful men of abuse, but with little real-world impact. Local media pundits likened Italian actresses Asia Argento and Ambra Battilana Gutierrez to prostitutes after they spoke out about being victims of Harvey Weinstein. Argento's public credibility as one of the most prominent faces of the #MeToo movement has been undermined by recent revelations that she paid former child actor Jimmy Bennett $380,000 in hush money to cover up details of her alleged sexual assault of Bennett in 2013, when he was 17 and Argento was 37. Argento has admitted to the payment but has denied all charges.

The case has been a potential blow for Italy's nascent #MeToo movement, which has struggled to create the same sense of public urgency around the issue of harassment as in the United States. Powerful men in the Italian industry who have been accused of abuse have, so far, avoided any real-life consequences. Director Fausto Brizzi, dubbed the “Italian Weinstein,” was accused by 10 women of sexual harassment or assault, but has continued to work after denying the charges. Italian women don’t even have the law on their side. The country’s statute of limitations for sex crimes is an astounding six months, making prosecution for offenses nearly impossible.

Given the culture of toxic masculinity — this is, after all, the country of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose Mediaset empire dominated Italian TV airwaves for decades, putting scantily clad women on display on everything from game shows to the nightly news — many Italians are skeptical if even a global movement like #MeToo can have an impact. Organizers of Italy’s #MeToo movement and Women in Film & TV Italy say that while they have been speaking to Venice leadership about signing the gender parity pledge, as of press time there are no plans to do so.

For many, the issues at the Venice Film Festival also go beyond ignoring or simply failing to recognize female talent. Several critics point to what they see as a bias in favor of a particular brand of macho misogynism, both in the attitude onscreen and in the behavior of the men behind the camera, who may also be chosen more for their name recognition than for the quality of their films.

Mektoub, My love: Canto Uno from French filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche, a competition entry in 2017, was panned by critics as a particularly gross example of the male gaze, with its meandering nonstory of teenage sex and a camera that at one point literally shoots up a woman’s skirt.

Barbera was also sharply criticized last year for picking, for an out-of-competition slot, James Toback's, The Private Life of a Modern Woman with Sienna Miller. Not only was the film a flop — one critic reported a near riot at the festival screening, as people fought for the exit 10 minutes in — but allegations against Toback, claiming harassment, abuse and even rape, were well-known.

In one particularly telling scene in the film, Toback plays a character who quizzes Miller’s character about her sex life, a dialogue that mirrored what many of Toback's accusers said happened in real life. After the festival, nearly 400 accusers, including actresses Julianne Moore, Selma Blair and Rachel McAdams, came forward to claim the director had harassed or assaulted them. Thus far, the L.A. District Attorney's Office has dropped five cases that were brought forward, each being outside the statute of limitations, with sexual battery allowing only one year in California. 

“I don't have any second thoughts. I’m not in a position to judge, to decide if James Toback’s behavior was good or bad. I’m not a judge. I’m not a lawyer. I’m a festival director. I knew Mr. Toback. I invited him,” says Barbera. “We’ll see if the tribunal decides if the accusations are true, and if they’re true he’ll sit in jail probably. If not, then there’s nothing against him, so we’ll see.”

This year, Venice is under fire for picking another film from an alleged abuser, with Bruce Weber's Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast screening in the Classics Documentary section. Conde Nast dropped the photographer following claims by 15 male models that Weber put them through unnecessary nudity and coercive sexual behavior. Both Toback and Weber have denied all allegations.

But as Hollywood’s presence on the Lido continues to grow, particularly with the festival as a key Oscar launchpad, so does the industry’s influence — and the industry is demanding change. The old male guard might be stronger in Venice, but it’s not clear how long it will be able to hold the tide back, especially as younger male allies join the #MeToo ranks. 

Giona A. Nazzaro, artistic director of the Venice Critics’ Week sidebar, has pushed to include more female filmmakers in his lineup (three out of seven films this year). Instead of speaking of quotas or gender parity, Nazzaro focuses on the work, noting that female filmmakers “are driven by sheer creativity and the desire to say something meaningful.”

Increasingly, and despite the resistance of some, those women are being heard.

“The industry is pushing for changes,” says Laura Kaehr, a writer-director and co-president of the Swiss Women’s Audiovisual Network, one of the co-signatories to the Aug. 10 open letter. “And for Venice to not have an open ear and an open eye to changes is a real problem.” 

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.