Fest revamps venues, shelves plans for pricey Palazzo

As far as infrastructural innnovation goes, the Venice Film Festival’s new mantra is: “Let’s work with what we’ve got.”

And the grand dame of film festivals’ existing venues can actually become quite classy with some smartly conceived cosmetic surgery, as attested by the revamped Sala Grande, renovated in the spirit of its original 1937 design.

Now that work on the planned $170 million Palazzo del Cinema has halted after toxic asbestos was found under its site, Biennale prexy Paolo Baratta has come up with plan B, which he says fulfills his vision, given that the now-dead new digs were commissioned by his predecessor, Davide Croff.

“What we were doing was building a lavish new monument and killing off our roots,” said Baratta. “We have to make a fresh start with our original buildings, proud of the fact that we are the oldest festival in the world — the one that set the blueprint for all film festivals.”

Last October, Baratta began negotiating with Venice municipal authorities to obtain direct oversight of the festival grounds in which the Biennale has now invested €3.8 million ($5.4 million) to become “protagonists of the renovation.”

In that spirit he has taken over management of the Excelsior Terrace, where the fest started in 1932, and of the Lion’s Bar area, where “Horizons-type” art movies were shown very early on.

The current Palazzo del Cinema was designed by sound engineer Luigi Quagliata who conceived the Sala Grande as a modernist temple of cinema with wood floors and panelling, and without a balcony.

In what Baratta calls “an intelligent restoration,” the refurbished venue now been upped from 1,017 to 1,032 seats, all in brown velvet, and also a slightly bigger screen. The floors are soundproof wood, while wood panelling, like that of the original, is now on the walls.

The next step will be a revamped Sala Darsena with more than 1,300 seats. Reconfigurations of existing venues are on the drawing board.

Plan B for the Palazzo site is now to build a smaller complementary structure there, possibly with digital screens that can also serve for industry screenings.But details of this have yet to be decided.

What is sure is that “the future is something light and flexible; not a monument,” said Baratta.

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