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Venice Film Festival Kicks Off, With Brad Pitt, Kristen Stewart, ‘Joker’ Lined Up for the Lido

The Venice Film Festival kicks off Wednesday with a lineup that’s a bit lighter on Hollywood fare than usual but still studded with hot titles and big stars expected to appear on the Lido, including Brad Pitt for space odyssey “Ad Astra,” Kristen Stewart for “Seberg” and Joaquin Phoenix for “Joker.”

The fest’s opening news conference also made clear that the under-representation of female filmmakers in Venice continues to be a hot-button topic, with jury president Lucrecia Martel suggesting that festival chief Alberto Barbera could have experimented with making the competition lineup evenly divided between films directed by men and women. Only two of the 21 titles in competition are by female directors.

Wednesday night’s opener is Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda’s mother-daughter drama “The Truth” (“La Verite”), whose stars Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche are set to stroll the red carpet. The Paris-set movie is the first filmed by Kore-eda outside Japan and segues from “Shoplifters,” which won the Palme d’Or last year. Venice chief Alberto Barbera has called the new film “a poetic reflection on the relationship between a mother and her daughter, and the complex profession of acting.”

There is some irony in the decision to open Venice with a French-language Palme d’Or followup. Venice, which under Barbera’s leadership has grown into a formidable Oscar launching pad, has in past months been criticized by Cannes chief Thierry Fremaux for its “obsession” with American movies.  Indeed, prior to “The Truth,” Hollywood pics have opened the Venice fest since 2012. The past three editions kicked off with “First Man,” “Downsizing” and “La La Land.”

Still, with four U.S. titles in the 21-entry competition and about as many in other sections, a strong clutch of starry pics with awards potential are making the overseas trek.

Thursday will see a double dose of Hollywood with James Grey’s “Ad Astra” from Fox, starring Pitt as an astronaut on a mission to save the solar system. It’s screening in tandem with Noah Baumbach’s intimate divorce drama for Netflix, “Marriage Story,” with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a couple in conflict.

On Friday, Stewart is expected on the Lido for Amazon’s “Seberg,” in which she plays “Breathless” actress Jean Seberg, directed by Benedict Andrews. On Saturday, Warner Bros. is launching “Joker,” helmed by Todd Philips, starring Phoenix as the Batman villain. Barbera predicts that this gritty R-rated superhero movie “is going straight to the Oscars.”

Also on Saturday, Nate Parker will bow his politically charged “American Skin,” the actor-director’s followup to “The Birth of a Nation,” which was negatively affected three years ago after news re-emerged that Parker had once been charged with – but acquitted of – rape. Fallout from scrutiny over that case is still active, as is the controversy surrounding Roman Polanski, who was convicted of statutory rape in 1977. Polanski is in competition on the Lido with historical drama “An Officer and a Spy,” about the 19th century Dreyfus Affair in France.

Barbera has defended the decision to include Parker’s and Polanski’s films, saying that his choices are based solely on the artistic quality of the movies. The Venice chief uses the same argument to counter criticism of the low number of female-directed films in the main competition.

“I would have liked to include more movies by women. We even went back and watched several films by women directors twice,” Barbera said during the festival’s opening news conference Wednesday, which was dominated by issues of female representation and the inclusion of Polanski and Parker’s films in the selection. “There were long discussions with the selection committee, which is 50% made up by women, about this.”

He added: “When I hear about other festivals boasting a 45% percentage of films by women directors I am forced to wonder what their selection criteria are.” He said that other festivals often select works by female filmmakers that Venice passed on.

Barbera has taken pains to point out that this year “there are lots of films that depict the female condition around the world.” He also noted that the overall percentage of female filmmakers in the selection has risen from 20% to 24%, and that women account for 68% of works premiering in the Venice VR section pioneered by the Lido. He has firmly rejected any notion of quotas.

Female directors preside over the fest’s two principal juries: Martel for the main competition and Susanna Nicchiarelli for the Horizons strand.

During the presser, both Martel and Nicchiarelli said they were unhappy about the state of affairs at an industry level and both seemed to reject the notion of quotas at festivals in an ideal world.

However, Martel at one point proposed: “For this 76th edition of the festival, you could have tried as an experiment, Mr. Barbera, to have 50-50, just to see what happens – if it’s so certain that the quality of movies would suffer or if this could foster a distinct industry-wide movement. The industry transformation underway is so deep that, after 76 years, Venice could experiment for a couple of years.”

Barbera responded: “If I had found 50% of movies directed by women I would have done that, without any need for a quota.”

Venice is also touting the fact that it’s the first major fest to address gender balance in the film industry by hosting a more than three-hour seminar Sept. 2 in tandem with European co-production entity Eurimages, Women in Film, and Italy’s #MeToo organization, Dissenso Comune. They will analyze fresh figures and try to identify the underlying dynamics of the industry’s chronic gender imbalance.

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