Venice Aims to Revive Cinema

Romola Garai in Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Miss Marx (2020)

Alberto Barbera, director of the Venice Film Festival, believes that not only can the show go on, it must. Europe may be flirting with a second wave of coronavirus infections, but for the time being at least, Italy, the epicenter of the global pandemic back in March, has since stabilized and is now holding steady. Presenting a lineup of around sixty new features, Barbera seemed confident on Tuesday morning that by implementing and enforcing all the necessary precautions—masks, social distancing, temperature checks, and new outdoor screening sites—he and his team can safely stage the first major international festival since the outbreak. From September 2 through 12, the goal will be nothing less than the revival of cinema, the art and the industry.

Americans are still barred from traveling to Europe, and the traditional studios and streaming giants won’t be sending their big-budget productions out into the world until they see the U.S. market opening up again. Surveying the 2020 lineup for Variety, Guy Lodge notes that it’s “light on big U.S. names, but heavy on less established and more diverse talent, hearkening back to the Lido’s history of giving future heavyweights their first big break. Those who follow Venice purely for Oscar-tracking purposes may be disappointed; more curious cinephiles, on the other hand, will welcome the refresh.”

Lodge points out that thirteen of the eighteen films “shortlisted for the Golden Lion are from directors who have never competed before.” And eight have been directed by women. For the past several years, Venice has been severely criticized for the underrepresentation of women in its selections, but as film critic Boyd van Hoeij puts it on Twitter, “With nearly no prestige pictures [and] Oscar hopefuls, suddenly there’s room for lots of women!”

The Competition

There are only two Hollywood studio productions in the main competition this year, and as it happens, both have been directed by women. On Monday, we took a look at Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, set to premiere simultaneously in Venice and Toronto and screening later the same night, September 11, in Los Angeles at an event organized by Telluride. And a couple of weeks later, Nomadland will be the centerpiece presentation in New York.

The other American film is The World to Come, the second feature from Mona Fastvold (The Sleepwalker), a Norwegian filmmaker based in New York. Based on a short story set on the American frontier in the nineteenth century by Jim Shepard, who has cowritten the screenplay with novelist Ron Hansen (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), The World to Come is “a rich and engrossing character study of four second-generation Americans battling the elements and eventually each other,” Fastvold told the Hollywood Reporter’s Alex Ritman last year.

The cast of The World to Come features Katherine Waterston, Casey Affleck, and Vanessa Kirby, who broke through internationally when she played Princess Margaret in the first two seasons of The Crown. Kirby also appears with Shia LaBeouf, Ellen Burstyn, Succession’s Sarah Snook, and Benny Safdie in Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman, Kata Wéber’s adaptation of her own play about a woman coping with the traumatic consequences of a home birth gone terribly wrong.

In Between Dying is the seventh feature but only the second fictional narrative by Azerbaijani filmmaker Hilal Baydarov. Coproduced by Carlos Reygadas, this story of a young man whose search for his real family has him running through an entire life cycle in a single day will arrive in Venice with a blurb from Cristian Mungiu, who calls the film “a meditation on the state of the world coming not from reason, narration, words, but from empathy, intuition, senses. You feel while watching In Between Dying how time flows, how relevant are the irrelevant moments of life—each of them bringing us closer to the end.”

That nebulous realm between life and death is further explored in Le sorelle Macaluso. Emma Dante, whose A Street in Palermo premiered in competition in Venice in 2013, has adapted her own play about seven dead sisters who reunite in a mysterious in-between world. In all, the Italian contingent in the competition is strong. Susanna Nicchiarelli will follow up on Nico, 1988 (2017) with Miss Marx, a tragic love story based on the life of Eleanor Marx (Romola Garai), the youngest daughter of Karl (Philip Gröning), an activist, and a prolific historian of feminist and workers’ movements.

Claudio Noce’s Padre nostro is based on the true story of two young boys, Valerio (Mattia Garaci) and Christian (Francesco Gheghi), whose friendship is strengthened in the Rome of the 1970s when they discover the cruelty that awaits them in the adult world. And Gianfranco Rosi, whose Sacro GRA (2013) was the first documentary to win the Golden Lion and whose Fire at Sea (2016) won the Golden Bear in Berlin and was nominated for an Oscar, returns with Notturno, which captures life at night in the war-torn zones of the Middle East.

And Tomorrow the Entire World, the debut feature from German director Julia von Heinz, is another unsettling snapshot of our present moment. Luisa (Mala Emde), a twenty-year-old law student, joins like-minded friends in a battle against the rising forces of right-wing populism in Germany—and decides that violence is a justified means of resistance. Amos Gitai’s Laila in Haifa interweaves the stories of five women over the course of a single night in a club in the Israeli port city. Gitai emphasizes that the film presents “an assembly of new and experienced actresses and actors alongside team members of Israeli and Palestinian origin.”

In the dystopian New Order, the sixth feature by Mexican director Michel Franco (Chronic), hordes of the hungry poor crash a rich family’s wedding reception. Barbera calls New Order a “very harsh film, set in the near and harrowing future like that suffered by many countries ruled by totalitarian governments.” And in Quo Vadis, Aida?, directed by Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Žbanić, who won the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2006 for Grbavica, a teacher working for the UN as a translator in Srebrenica fights to have her children kept in the UN safe zone when, in 1995, the town is besieged by Serbian forces.

Further historical drama comes from Andrei Konchalovsky, who launched his filmmaking career as a friend and collaborator of Andrei Tarkovsky, with whom he cowrote Andrei Rublev (1966). Five of the films he’s directed, including Runaway Train (1985), have competed in Cannes, and he’s had six films in competition in Venice, where he’s twice won the Silver Lion. Konchalovsky will be eighty-three when he presents Dear Comrades, the story of the massacre of demonstrating Soviet workers in the southern Russian town of Novocherkassk in 1962. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy, cowritten with Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Tadashi Nohara (who worked together on Hamaguchi’s Happy Hour), is set in 1940. A Japanese businessman witnesses an atrocity in Manchuria, and his attempts to go public with what he’s seen cause trouble for his wife back home in Kobe.

More intimate conflicts arise in Lovers from French actress (Mon oncle d’Amérique) and director (From the Land of the Moon) Nicole Garcia, who directs Stacy Martin, Pierre Niney, and Benoît Magimel in the story of a woman who rekindles a passionate affair with a former boyfriend while vacationing with her husband. Cinematographer Michał Englert, who has shot Malgorzata Szumowska’s In the Name Of (2013) and Body (2015), is credited as a codirector on their latest collaboration, Never Gonna Snow Again, which focuses on a Ukrainian masseur in Poland who becomes a sort of guru to his clients. And thirty-three-year-old Indian director Chaitanya Tamhane, who won Venice’s Orizzonti award in 2014 for his debut feature, Court, is back with The Disciple, a fictional feature set in the world of Hindustani classical music in Mumbai.

Iranian director Majid Majidi is probably best known for Children of Heaven (1997) and The Color of Paradise (1999), and he’ll be competing for the first time in Venice with another film in a similar vein. In Sun Children, twelve-year-old Ali and his three friends take on odd jobs and commit petty crimes to help support their families. Ali is approached by a charity, the Sun School, and invited to go hunting for a secret treasure.


Claire Denis will preside over the jury that will choose the winners of seven awards from a selection of nineteen films slated to premiere in the Orizzonti competition, which as the festival puts it, is “dedicated to films that represent the latest aesthetic and expressive trends in international cinema.” Talking to IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, Barbera says that he “desperately wanted” to have Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks in the main competition, but he’s pleased to to be able to present Mainstream, the second feature from Gia Coppola after Palo Alto (2013). “It’s a bigger film in terms of budget,” says Barbera, “it’s more ambitious, and has a bigger cast with Andrew Garfield in the main role. It’s less intimate and personal than the last one, but it’s a topic that is very contemporary. It’s the story of a social media influencer and the way he loses control of his profile.”

At this point, much of the rest of the Orizzonti program will be a matter of discovery. There is no synopsis available for Genus Pan, for example, but we do know that, with a running time of just two and a half hours, it’s one of Lav Diaz’s shortest features yet. Other filmmakers set to compete are Christos Nikou, who has worked as an assistant to Yorgos Lanthimos; Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania; Philippe Lacôte, whose first feature, Run (2014), premiered in the Un Certain Regard program at Cannes; Shahram Mokri, whose Fish & Cat (2013) won a special award in Venice; Kazakh director Adilkhan Yerzhanov; and Uberto Pasolini.

Out of Competition

Of all the films premiering out of competition, the standout has to be City Hall, first because it’s the latest documentary from Frederick Wiseman, and second because it runs just over four and a half hours. We can only hope that it will be screening outdoors. After well over forty documentary features, the ninety-year-old director has shot this new one in his hometown, Boston.

Another immensely intriguing title is Hopper/Welles, an unscripted 129-minute conversation between Dennis Hopper and Orson Welles that took place in Los Angeles in 1970. As Ray Kelly reports at Wellesnet, producer Filip Jan Rymsza and editor Bob Murawski, who worked on the restoration of Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, have rediscovered and reassembled Hopper/Welles. Among the topics covered by the two renegade filmmakers are “politics, Christianity, fraught family relationships, and of course, moviemaking,” writes Kelly.

Last month, Joshua Encinias spoke with Abel Ferrara a bit about Sportin’ Life, a documentary he and his team shot when they took Siberia to the Berlinale in February, which, of course, was the last major festival to take place before the global lockdown. “So it’s kind of like the last party, the last gathering,” says Ferrara.

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