To say that every sweaty, masked moment at the Venice Film Festival was nothing short of miraculous would be an understatement.
Even now, having returned home to London after eight days in Venice, it’s incredible to me that it even happened. That, for instance, Tilda Swinton declared “Wakanda Forever!” on an actual stage in front of our eyes, and not through Zoom. Or that we survived on paninis and cold pizza alone for a week, and enjoyed it. And that we assembled in the dark every day, at every opportunity, transported by cinema.
When Venice revealed this spring that it would be staged as a physical event — “The Venice Film Festival cannot be replaced by an online event,” organizers huffed in early April — I was skeptical. The COVID-19 situation in Europe, at that time, was dire, and Italy was especially hard hit. How, I wondered, would they pull this off? As summer wore on, it became clear the festival would be a thoroughly European affair given the travel restrictions in North America and parts of Asia. “Who’s even going to this thing?” some U.S. executives would remark snarkily in our calls. “It’s going to be dead, just watch.”
But Venice was far from dead. In fact, it was more alive than ever. As attendees from the industry began arriving on the Lido — squinting in the sunshine as the water taxi hurtled along, after months in self-isolation, was a pleasure in itself — most of us were struck immediately by the no-nonsense COVID-19 measures in place around the festival complex, which were unlike anything I’ve experienced during this pandemic (and wish I had, Boris Johnson).
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At the very first entry point of the festival premises, you’re asked to wear your mask, your entry is filmed and your temperature is taken (the first in what would be countless times a day). And don’t even think about pulling that face covering under your nose. Most everyone inside festival grounds is masked, with allowances only made if you’re eating or drinking. And here’s the best part: everyone is totally fine with it, because it’s for our own safety.
Inside the auditoriums, the masks are mandatory, and for a long film and across several screenings per day, that can feel arduous — and, again, sweaty. But, honestly? It was bliss. The online ticketing system for every screening, event and press conference was seamless after some initial kinks, and not only could you breeze in two minutes before virtually everything because your spot was reserved, but the seats to each side of you were empty. Those interlopers who tried to sit next to their industry pals? Non permesso, because the seats were fastened shut. You had space to breathe, think and not deal with other people’s heavy breathing—or talking or trying to invade your space.
The overall atmosphere was quiet, and sometimes eerily so. There were no parties, so if you wanted to network, you had to be organized with your schedule and book in outdoor drinks or dinners. Venice made good on its promise of a red carpet outside the Sala Grande, though you couldn’t exactly see it because of a massive wall erected to prevent the crowds from gathering. Maya Hawke, I realized in retrospect, darted past me on her way to the “Mainstream” red carpet, but I didn’t recognize her at the time because of her face mask. This was the way in Venice: we were practically anonymous. And in a strange way, that was okay, because it allowed us to focus on something precious we’ve been bereft of these last six months — cinema.
For a moment there, the very foundation of our industry felt, to me, something abstract and alien. I reported on the movie industry during COVID-19 constantly, but I hadn’t experienced it in so long — the tingly anticipation of seeing an artist’s work before any other audience in the world; the exhilaration of actors like Vanessa Kirby (“Pieces of a Woman,” “The World to Come”) and Alec Utgoff (“Never Gonna Snow Again”) delivering career-changing performances; and, most of all, breathlessly gushing to people (through masks) about what you’d witnessed together.
All eyes have been on Venice, and long after everyone’s gone home, they’ll continue to be on Venice. There will be, as expected, intense scrutiny in case someone gets sick, which is entirely possible even with such strict protocols. But if the industry had to start somewhere as it looked to pick itself up from COVID-19’s trail of destruction, organizers certainly did everything in their power to ensure it was the best, and safest, start possible.