As the 79th Venice International Film Festival begins on Wednesday, August 31st, this Italian event is regaining prominence due to two key factors. The first is that it has consistently (especially in the last ten years) been ahead of other festivals in terms of film selection. The second is that it adds another year to its long life every year. This year marks the festival's ninetieth anniversary since its inception in 1932.
The festival has held 78 previous sessions in various political, economic, and artistic environments over the past ninety years. It has discovered dozens of talents and shown hundreds of important films which have won international awards. Four films from the last ten years have won Oscars, and the majority of them have won numerous other awards.
It is the first festival in parallel with the Cannes Film Festival, which it exceeds in one or two aspects while being surpassed by it in one or two areas. One point is that its film selection process is more diverse and accepts films that are not necessarily related to marketing policy.
THE DIFFICULT YEARS
The first Venice Film Festival took place in August 1932 by decision of the National Fascist Party as part of the activities and events of the Venice Biennale, which was first held in the region of Venice in the year 1893 to sponsor various arts such as theater, dance, music, and paintings. It has grown since then to become one of the world's most important hosts of art and culture.
It missed the art of cinema prior to 1932 due to the fact that cinema as was only twenty years old at the time. It began with short experiments in 1912, was advancing in 1927, and was established as an industry and a form of art in 1930.
History provides ample evidence that Italian cinema was among the first in the world. This history leads us to the fact that Italian cinema, along with American, Russian, Swedish, French, German, and Japanese cinemas, participated in the renaissance beginning in the early 1910s.
Italian cinema was active in production in the early 1930s, prompting Benito Mussolini to commission businessman Giuseppe Volti to study the cinema industry and how to support it. This informed the decision to establish the festival, which began in August 6, 1932 with an acclaimed opening film titled "Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," a 1931 version by the American Robin Mamoulian. The film is an outstanding classic work of its kind, and was deemed a work of art by standards of that time.
Among the films shown at the festival's inaugural edition was "Us la Liberté" by French René Clair, which won the Audience Award for best comedy film because there was no jury nor official awards at the time.
Another film screened was "The Sin of Madelon Claudet" by American Edgar Selwyn took first place. This film won the Audience Award for "Most Touching Film," and Helen Hayes was nominated for Best Actress. Frederic March, the lead actor in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was named Best Actor.
The festival was not held in 1933, but it was reinstated as an annual event in 1934, this time with official awards, the most important of which are the Best Italian Film and the Best Foreign Film, which was "Man of Aran," a British documentary film about the people of the Irish island of Aran.
In that edition, the Americans and Soviets competed, with the Russians showing "Petersburg Nights" by Grigory Rochia and Vera Stroyava and "Three Songs for Lenin" by Dziga Vertov, while Hollywood packed ten of its best films, including "Little Women" by George Cukor.
A WAR ON MULTIPLE FRONTS
Mussolini decided in 1935 to take the festival management away from the Biennale Foundation and gave it to the Ministry of "Popular Culture," allowing the new administration to decide which countries could show its films in the midst of the political confrontations that began to heat up prior to the outbreak of World War II.
Three years later, France decided to have its own festival, and thus the Cannes Festival was born out of the Venice Festival, and for good reason – the Italian festival had excluded anti-German and anti-Italian films from consideration, and in 1938, the jury even withheld an award that had been given to a French film and replaced it with a German one. However, Cannes first edition, which began in 1939, was interrupted by Hitler's invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II, so it took place over a few days and then ended.
The truth is that the motivations for establishing the Venice Festival and the Festival de Cannes were purely political, or rather, political responses to a reality that was steadily dragging the world into a new world war. Even the Berlin Festival, which debuted in 1951, was inspired by the Allies' desire for the West German capital to have its own festival.
Political crises and wars disrupted and interrupted the Italian festival several times in the first half of the 1940s. However, the war ended and the festival returned in 1946 with unusual force. This success was confirmed the following year, when competition began between the world's two most important film festivals, Venice and Cannes.
But, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Venice experienced a different kind of crisis, though it was also political. The conflict between the right and the left, as well as the exchange of access to the presidency between both groups' parties and the partisan and political affiliations of successive governments, resulted in withholding prizes in more than edition. In the years 1973, 1977, and 1978, it was decided not to hold the festival at all.
When the Festival returned in 1979, it was led by Carlo Lisani until 1983, then by the Italian critic Gian Luigi Rondi for four years. Gillo Pontecorvo (director of "The Battle of Algiers") took over in 1992 and managed the annual event until 1996. Alberto Barbera, the current director, took over twice, the first time in 1998 until 2002, and the second time from 2011 until today.
TOWARDS THE FUTURE
Barbera's term is as important today as it was in previous days when the Festival rose and fell multiple times. It was necessary for the festival to expand in the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, particularly that it was returned to the Biennale Foundation decades ago. The festival was undeniably successful at the time. It had excellent films and was well-organized, and a large audience, but its global scale had not grown since Barbera took over, not because of the previous directors' inaction. These included Moritz de Hadelen, who had contributed to the restoration of the Berlin Film Festival to its great role when he took over its management before taking over the Venice Film Festival for only two years (2002-2004). Venice festival had not grown because it needed a new boost of connections with the commercial and industrial cinema stakeholders around the world.
Prior to Barbera's appointment, the[Ma1] Honorary Golden Lion Award (Italian: Leone d'Oro) was not as significant as Cannes's Palme d'Or. For most producers and filmmakers, only two international awards are deserving of recognition: the Academy Awards and the Cannes Film Festival (not for all of the awards, but especially those awarded to the best film in the first place).
Barbera made an important shift in realizing that, while he must maintain all important artistic traits, he must also strengthen his connection to Hollywood, its companies, and directors, and direct the rudder so that his awards continue to be relevant in all of these circles.
When the Cannes Film Festival (due to protests by National Association of Theatre Owners) failed to engage with the technological progress that created platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and others, the Italian festival took advantage of the opportunity and nodded to those platforms by agreeing to show their films in its home country.
The competition between Cannes and Venice is fierce right now. Of course, you will not find either of them speaking positively or negatively about the other. But they are closely watching each other, which is a different kind of war.
Films screened in each of the two festivals are in a race for gold, i.e the Oscar nominations and awards. This is due to the fact that each festival is directly linked to the Academy Awards. If a festival’s film wins an Oscar, filmmakers will attend that festival. As said in old Western movies: "This town is too small for both of us."
With the start of the 79th Venice Film Festival, the Festival appears to be younger than it has ever been. One cannot discount the competition with Cannes, which has evolved from a film festival into what some describe as a "mass cinematic circus,” where there is no relationship between the attendees and its management team. Everything is getting closer to being a business and imposing a slew of conditions and demands.
The heavy presence of producers, distributors, and Festival officials ensures good interviews and meetings, but there is a sense that everything in the market corners (behind and in front of the palace and inside its two halls) is purely commercial and a proof of presence to complete the terms of dominance.
Although some press cards give access to all of the shows, if the festival decides that the films which a critic wants to see will not be available, no one will listen to your complaints.
Cannes films are French. The competition and much of what is shown outside of it either fully or partially received French funding. This drew criticism, but the festival's management has never admitted that its commitment to encouraging and promoting everything French has become one of the festival's most negative aspects.
On the other hand, Venice is free of these consequences. Its films are more open, without any conditions. It presents a wide range of films that have nothing to do with Italy or Germany, as well as distribution policy, which contributes to the successful diversity of films.
What a festival promotes in the media is not films as topics and issues, but rather how many star-studded productions it shows. Berlin, Cannes and Venice used to achieve this goal. This year Venice has many famous faces who will capture the attention of photographers and be surrounded by interviewers.
Cate Blanchett, who stars in Todd Field's "Tar," and Ana de Armas, who plays Marilyn Monroe in Andrew Dominic's "Blond," will draw a crowd. Even Adam Driver and Timothée Chalamet, two of this critic's second-rated actors, have fans. The former is the protagonist of "White Noise," and the latter is in Luca Guadanino's new film "Bones and All." They both rose to prominence after appearing in Guadanino's previous film, “Call Me Your Name.”
Willem Dafoe from "Dead for a Dollar," Casey Affleck from "Dreamin' Wild," and Sigourney Weaver from "Avatar 3," which is currently filming in New Zealand, will also attend a screening with Joel Edgerton. Their films include "Master Gardener" by Schrarder, who, along with Darren Aronofsky and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarette (who will present his awaited film "Bardo"), are among the most important artists working in American cinema today, often with excellent results.
Additionally, the oldest director to attend the festival is Walter Hill (80 years), whose films include "48 Hours," "The Last Man Standing," and "Jeronimo." He did not attend many European film festivals, which could imply that hosting him will be a tribute to his long career.