Venice plays big role in film history

Unique architecture, geography lures filmmakers

Count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata set the template for film festivals when he dreamed up the first Venice event in 1932. So it’s clear that Venice has had a long love affair with film. And vice-versa: Films have always loved Venice.

Like all movie stars, Venice is amazingly photogenic and has shown an amazing range: It can be romantic, scary, action-packed, meditative — and even occasionally unrecognizable.

Since the earliest days of cinema, with works like the 1897 short “Panoramic View of Venice,” there have been hundreds of films and TV shows set here.

But it’s more than just the scenery. From the time of Sophocles, dramatists have known that if you put characters in unfamiliar settings, it will bring out the best — or worst — in them. And since there is no city in the world like Venice (with more than 117 islands, 150 canals and 400 bridges) people are bound to be thrown off balance from their well-ordered lives, which means interesting things are likely to happen.

Here’s an honor roll of the role Venice has played in films.

Summertime, 1955; director, David Lean; script, H.E. Bates

In his autobiography, Arthur Laurents laments that his play “The Time of the Cuckoo” was ruined by director David Lean and star Katharine Hepburn. He dismisses “Summertime” as “a beautifully photographed travelogue, a coffee-table book on film.” But for 50 years, audiences have been swooning over the film for exactly those reasons. To many, this is the quintessential depiction of Venice on film: A city with sunlight bouncing off the canals and moonlit magic in the Piazza San Marco where even an American spinster (yes, they actually used that word back in the 1950s) can find romance in the wondrous maze of Venice.

“Don’t Look Now,” 1973; director Nicolas Roeg; script, Allan Scott, Chris Bryant

After seeing this spooky-dooky film, you’ll never look at Venice the same way. This is like the dark twin of Lean’s movie, where the idea of walking in the labyrinthine streets is not charming but sinister, as sounds bounce off the water making it impossible to tell how close (or far) footsteps and voices are. Some slasher-horror movies may make you jump in your seat, but this is not one of those. This is one of those films that gets under your skin and creeps you out even years after you first see it. It’s got a fascinating message (Pay attention! The world is sending you signals so you’d better pick up on them!), beautiful scenery, one of cinema’s all-time-great sex scenes and, best of all, it’s got Julie Christie. Who could ask for anything more?

An auxiliary of this film is “The Comfort of Strangers,” in which Venice’s dark side also is depicted, but this time in the beautiful but decadent interiors of crumbling palazzos. Pic stars Christopher Walken and Helen Mirren. Paul Schrader directed from a script by Harold Pinter, adapting the fiction of Ian McEwan.

“Death in Venice,” 1971; director, Luchino Visconti; script, Visconti, Nicola Badalucco

With its luscious photography and Mahler score, this film lovingly shows Venetian landmarks, but it centers on a Venice that many travelogs miss: The Hotel des Bains and the Lido — yes, right where you are standing! The film scores high points for that, but it loses points for that bummer title.

When you’re here at the festival, you can think of author Thomas Mann, Mahler, Visconti, Dirk Bogarde, Silvana Mangano and Marisa Berenson. But as for the film’s troubling details (alerts from the health department, rumors about bad shellfish, disinfectants and cholera, and dying on the seashore) — don’t think about them. Festivals are supposed to be festive, right?

Top Hat, 1935; director, Mark Sandrich; script, Alan Scott, Dwight Taylor

This film’s depiction of Venice may be even more surreal than Fellini’s. It’s all white-white streets and black-black canals in an art-deco design. Terps tap-dance their little hearts out on the three-level mega-set and Ginger Rogers sings “The Piccolino,” featuring Irving Berlin’s most shameless rhymes: Piccolino, casino, bambino, vino, scallopino.

For other scenes of canals shot on soundstages, check out films from the 1960s such as “The Honey Pot” and “The Assassination Bureau.”

Fellini’s Casanova, 1976; director, Federico Fellini; script, Fellini, Bernardino Zapponi; art direction, Danilo Donati

Thanks to cinema, people can have vivid memories of Venice without ever having been here. Conversely, Fellini evokes the mysterious beauty of the city without actually having lensed here. Starting with the dream-like opening scene — carnival time, as a giant statue of Venus begins to rise from the Grand Canal — it all has the ring of truth, even though it was filmed on a soundstage at Rome’s Cinecitta.

In real life, Venice has its own high level of wonder and fantasy, so one wouldn’t think anyone would need Fellini to bring it to a surreal level. But it works.

“The Italian Job,” 2003; director, F. Gary Gray; script Donna Powers, Wayne Powers

Any film can feature a car chase, but if you want to try something different, how about a canal chase? The 2003 “The Italian Job,” a remake of the 1969 caper film, offers a humdinger, as everyone speeds through Venice’s dizzying layout.

And three James Bonds (Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Daniel Craig) had battles here, each reflecting the different styles of 007 through the years. In “From Russia With Love,” Connery had a climactic battle in a hotel room with Rosa Klebb (look out for those shoes!), then canoodled with a Russian sexpot in a gondola. In “Moonraker,” Moore is being pursued through the canals by a speedboat until his gadget-filled gondola (don’t ask!) converts to a land-craft, where he glides through St. Mark’s Square, as tourists gawk, waiters spill things and a pigeon does a double take. (I’m not making this up.) In “Casino Royale,” Craig pursued a villain through the square, then had a Venetian donnybrook as CGI work demolished a palazzo.

“The English Patient,” 1996; writer-director Anthony Minghella

A true movie star has to give the fans what they want — but occasionally surprise them. While Venice has shown its ever- fascinating, immediately recognizable side in hundreds of films, the city really demonstrated its range in “The English Patient” by playing Cairo.

Several scenes in the Oscar-winning film are set in Shepheard’s Hotel, but that real-life Cairo lodging had changed too much over the decades to play itself in the WWII-set film. So the “Patient” team filmed at the Hotel des Bains here. Goofy? A little. But since Juliette Binoche is playing a Canadian and since the title character isn’t really English but Hungarian, anything goes.

The Merchant of Venice,” 2004; writer-director Michael Radford

What is it with Shakespeare and Italy? He set more than one-fourth of his plays in Italy, including two in Venezia. Both “The Merchant of Venice” and “Othello” have been filmed numerous times, but the city is showcased in the 2004 version of the former, starring Al Pacino, and the 1995 film with Laurence Fishburne as the Moor of Venice. These are not exactly travelogue-style, but you get interesting glimpses (including Venice’s Jewish ghetto) and, frankly, you can’t go wrong with Shakespeare. And you can’t go wrong with Venice.

There have been hundreds of films shot here, including period pics, such as the 2005 “Casanova” with Heath Ledger, “The Wings of the Dove,” “It’s De-Lovely,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Brideshead Revisited” and “Dangerous Beauty.”

And then there are the contempo films, including the teen romantic comedy “Chasing Liberty” (starring the ever-reliable Matthew Goode), “Blame It on the Bellboy,” “Blume in Love” (George Segal finding his inner self in San Marco) and Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You,” which, like most of the other films, emphasizes the romantic side of the city — well, if you think the idea of Allen pairing with Julia Roberts is romantic.

And don’t think we’ve forgotten the European films set here. Among the many are Enrico Maria Salerno’s “Anonimo veneziano” (Anonymous Venetian); Silvio Soldini’s “Pane e tulipani” (Bread and Tulips); Luc Besson’s “Nikita” (aka La Femme Nikita); and Lone Scherfig’s “Italian for Beginners.”

“Like a Virgin” — OK, admittedly, this is a musicvideo, not a film.

But as Madonna sings, preens and flirts on a gondola, she is overt in what is only the subtext in many of the above mentioned films: Venice is one hot and sexy city.

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