Venice Nabs Studio Films, Undiscovered Indies as Fall Festival Season Kicks Off

The 72nd edition of the Venice Film Festival, which runs Sept. 2-12, reflects a new detente among some of the heavyweights on the fall festival calendar, but it also stands as testament to artistic director Alberto Barbera’s contention that the Lido sprocket opera “must not position itself against the market, nor pander to it.”

With Toronto less aggressive in pushing for world preems this year, Venice has secured some strong studio titles, including its opener, Universal’s “Everest,” and several other hot bows, such as Eddie Redmayne starrer “The Danish Girl,” directed by Tom Hooper; Cary Fukunaga’s child-soldier drama “Beasts of No Nation,” with Idris Elba, above; and Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight,” starring Michael Keaton, who starred in Venice’s opener last year, “Birdman.” These three will segue from the Lido to having North American launches at the Toronto festival.

The rapprochement comes after Barbera and Toronto artistic director Cameron Bailey met in Berlin and Cannes, where “we even argued about their new juried competition” called Platform, Barbera recounts.

“Then we understood that Toronto wasn’t gearing up to become a competitive festival. They just wanted to have a small competition to give more visibility to some non-American directors who risked drowning in a lineup of 350 titles.”

Instead, the real shakeup, Barbera maintains, is the New York Film Festival opening with the world premiere of Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk,” and the London Film Festival getting Meryl Streep starrer “Suffragette,” which explores Britain’s long and violent journey toward granting women the right to vote, as its opening night pic.

“It can’t be denied that the hierarchy that used to exist among festivals has diminished a lot,” he notes. “Once there was Cannes, then Venice, then Berlin, then Toronto; then all the rest, at a much lower level. Now, the person who decides where a movie launches from is not a festival’s artistic director; it’s a distributor’s marketing director.”

But Barbera, far from seeing himself beholden to studio marketing execs, emphasizes the Lido’s role as a platform for discoveries, underscoring the fact that 14 out of 21 directors in this year’s competition have never been to the fest before. Venice newbies include U.S. indie fare like Laurie Anderson’s feature film debut, “Heart of a Dog”; Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa,” the fest’s only animated title; and “Equals,” the latest from “Like Crazy” helmer Drake Doremus.

“The American contingent in competition is emblematic of a capability in the U.S. to diversify types of production; to risk, and really invest,” Barbera says.

By contrast, the Venice topper is less upbeat about the current state of cinema Italiano, despite the strong Italian presence at Cannes this year.

“We saw 178 Italian movies, and four-fifths of them were unwatchable,” he says.

The four Italian titles he ended up taking for competition “don’t have anything to do with known Italian cinematic tradition; it’s like there were made by aliens,” he says. That’s why Barbera thinks they are good.

These include Luca Guadagnino’s “A Bigger Splash,” a psychological drama about a famous rock star and a filmmaker (Matthias Schoenaerts and Tilda Swinton, respectively) vacationing and recovering on the strange sun-drenched Italian island of Pantelleria; veteran auteur Marco Bellocchio’s “Blood of My Blood,” a period drama with a vampire twist toplining Alba Rohrwacher as a 17th-century nun who seduces a young army officer and his twin brother, who is a priest; and Italo first-timer Piero Messina’s Sicily-set “L’attesa” (The Wait), starring Juliette Binoche. Messina served as Paolo Sorrentino’s a.d. on “This Must Be the Place” and “The Great Beauty.”

This may be the last edition of Venice led by Barbera, whose four-year contract expires this year, along with that of Paolo Baratta, president of the Venice Biennale, the fest’s parent org. Once this edition is over, Italian politicians will decide what lies in store for the Lido, which has historically been plagued by a lack of continuity in its leadership. This could be their chance to break with the past.

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