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Venice Film Festival artistic director Alberto Barbera has become well-versed in dealing with uncertainty. How else could he pull off assembling what will hopefully be the world’s first A-list celebration of cinema after the coronavirus crisis?

“Up until the beginning of May, I actually thought we could not have the festival,” he told Variety in early July. “I was happy because after nine years,
I would have been able to go on a summer holiday,” Barbera added ironically. “But that was the only element of con­so­lation vis-a-vis a very worrying and uncertain future.”

Barbera has since announced a director-driven lineup for the Lido’s 77th edition, running Sept. 2-12, that’s understandably thinner than other years on high-profile U.S. titles, but suffers no shortage of substantial new works from around the globe by both known names and potential breakouts. It has the makings of a watershed Lido edition steeped in symbolic significance, barring complications.

“This year’s Venice will confirm that cinema is not dead,” says Paris-based sales agent Hengameh Panahi, whose shingle Celluloid Dreams is launching two films in competition: Italian director Susanna Nicchiarelli’s English-language “Miss Marx,” a biopic of Karl Marx’s ill-fated protofeminist daughter Eleanor; and Iranian auteur Majid Majidi’s child labor drama “Sun Children.”

Panahi says Venice will finally present films in real screening rooms “with the lights off and people watching them together” — albeit at a distance from each other — all experiencing the “excitement of being among the first people watching the film.”

“It’s a sacred experience,” she notes. “And even more so in Venice, which is the oldest of all the great festivals and where the atmosphere is so special.”
By being the first major festival set to physically take place, “Venice will hopefully mark a sort of restart,” says Michael Weber, head of German sales company the Match Factory. “I am very grateful that Alberto took it upon his shoulders to say: ‘I want this festival to happen.’ There are all these filmmakers waiting to launch their movies and to share them with an audience.”

The Match Factory will launch three titles in the Venice 77 competition: Michel Franco’s dystopian drama “Nuevo Orden,” set in his hometown of Mexico City; Polish drama “Never Gonna Snow Again,” co-directed by Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert, which is also repping Poland in the upcoming Oscar race; and Gianfranco Rosi’s buzzed-about doc “Notturno,” shot in the Middle East, including war zones and hot spots, which segues from the Italian director’s migration-themed “Fire at Sea.”

Venice organizers are being very supportive in trying to bring delegations over to the Lido for all the films, producers and sales agents say. And online press launches are being set up for bizzers who will not be able to travel.

“Most people are actually happy with the programming this year because it’s finally giving more space to director-driven [rather than star-driven] films,” says Pascal Diot, manager of the Lido’s informal market, known as the Venice Production Bridge. Less starry awards-worthy U.S. movies means more arthouse films and, by extension, greater support for the indie industry, he notes.

Diot also points out that in this exceptional year most European industry executives will not be going to the Toronto Intl. Film Festival. Another big difference between the two festivals this year is that, unlike Toronto, Venice “will have a market that is physically on-site.”

This year’s pandemic-prompted circumstances have also seen a different dynamic between Venice and Toronto just as it and other top fall fests this
year have “put their egos aside,” as Barbera put it, and formed an alliance out of solidarity in the collective interest of cinema as a whole.

The alliance will see the simultaneous launch in Venice and Toronto of Frances McDormand-starrer “Nomadland,” by director Chloe Zhao. Venice and Toronto will also share premieres of other North American titles such as Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” and Kornél Mundruczó’s drama “Pieces of a Woman.”

Speaking of women, Barbera has said, in a welcome break with the past, “almost half” the films in competition — eight out of 18 — are directed by women and “were selected exclusively on the basis of their quality.” Venice had come under fire in the past for scarce representation of female directors in Lido slots.

Meanwhile, the Venice competition lineup’s strong European aspect this year comprises French actor-turned-director Nicole Garcia’s thriller “Lovers”
(AKA “Lisa Redler”) toplining Stacy Martin as a woman who, while on vacation with her husband, rekindles a passionate affair with her ex-boyfriend; Russian master Andrei Konchalovsky’s “Dear Comrades,” about the 1962 mass killing of Soviet workers demonstrating for better working conditions; and Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic’s “Quo Vadis, Aida,” set during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. From Japan comes Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s period suspense romancer “Wife of a Spy”; from Israel, Amos Gitai’s “Laila in Haifa,” about a disco in Haifa frequented by Israelis and Palestinians; and from India drama “The Disciple,” about the tribulations of a classical vocalist trying to stick to tradition in contemporary Mumbai, directed by Chaitanya Tamhane. Pic, executive produced by Alfonso Cuaron, is India’s first film in Venice’s main competition in 19 years.

Filmmaker Pedro Almodovar is expected on the Lido to launch his latest film, the roughly 30-minute Jean Cocteau adaptation “The Human
Voice,” starring Tilda Swinton, who is being honored with a career Golden Lion this year.

“I am very excited about coming back to Venice in such a special year, with COVID-19 as involuntary guest,” said Almodovar in a statement from
the festival. “Everything will be different, and I am looking forward to discovering it in person.”