In a normal year, the announcement of the Venice Film Festival lineup — often coming on the heels of its Toronto counterpart across the pond — triggers the first whisperings of awards season. Once second to Cannes in the European festival prestige stakes, Venice has in the last decade taken advantage of its late-summer scheduling to premiere any number of glossy fall hopefuls, from “Gravity” to “La La Land” to “A Star is Born.”
But this is not a normal year, and in turn, Venice fest director Alberto Barbera today unveiled an unconventional lineup — light on big U.S. names, but heavy on less established and more diverse talent, hearkening back to the Lido’s history of giving future heavyweights their first big break. Those who follow Venice purely for Oscar-tracking purposes may be disappointed; more curious cinephiles, on the other hand, will welcome the refresh.
The change in guard extends all the way to the headlining Competition section, often an old boys’ club of perennially returning auteurs: this year, however, 13 of the 18 films shortlisted for the Golden Lion are from directors who have never competed before. Eight of them, moreover, have female directors, a startling turnaround for a festival that has hitherto lagged behind its rivals in the gender parity stakes. After last year’s Competition featured just two female directors and controversially included Roman Polanski — resulting in heavy criticism on the latter score — this year’s feels like a timely mea culpa.
Among the female-helmed entries is the festival’s most-anticipated U.S. title: “Nomadland,” from Chinese-born Chloe Zhao, promises another juicy acting showcase for the redoubtable Frances McDormand, whose road to her second Oscar for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” began on the Lido three years ago. That Zhao’s film is seen as the star attraction of the lineup is indicative of this lineup’s alternative outlook: no one’s expecting Hollywood polish from the experimental, documentary-influenced director of 2017 Cannes breakout “The Rider.”
A traditional Venice lineup, meanwhile, might not have found room in Competition for Norwegian-American indie talent Mona Fastvold, a Sundance alumnus whose sophomore feature “The World to Come” is a 19th-century survival story starring Katherine Waterston and Casey Affleck. Ditto Susanna Nicchiarelli, whose offbeat biopic “Nico, 1988” won the festival’s secondary Horizons competition in 2017: She returns in biographical mode again with “Miss Marx,” starring Romola Garai as Karl Marx’s ill-fated activist daughter Eleanor.
Other distaff-directed selections include Emma Dante’s “Le Sorelle Macaluso,” Nicole Garcia’s “Lovers,” Malgorzata Szumowska’s “Never Gonna Snow Again,” Julia von Heinz’s “And Tomorrow the Entire World” and Jasmila Zbanic’s “Quo Vadis, Aida” — significantly raising the odds of Cate Blanchett’s jury handing the top prize to a woman for the first time since Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” triumphed a decade ago.
The male side of the Competition yields some wild cards of its own: if veteran names like Gianfranco Rosi (a Golden Lion winner in 2013 for “Sacro GRA,” here returning with “Notturno”), Andrei Konchalovsky (“Dear Comrades”) and Cannes regulars Michel Franco (“Nuevo Orden”) and Kornel Mundruczo (“Pieces of a Woman”) are to be expected, it’s bracing to see a rare Indian selection in the fest’s top section: Chaitanya Tamhane was a Horizons breakout in 2014 with “Court,” and his long-awaited follow-up “The Disciple” arrives with high expectations.
Other surprises don’t concern who’s in, but who’s out: former Venice darlings like documentary master Frederick Wiseman (arriving with his mammoth 272-minute “City Hall”) and recent Golden Lion winner Lav Diaz (whose latest, “Genus Pan,” has a brief-by-his-standards 150-minute runtime) are among those sitting out Competition this year to unspool out of competition and in Horizons, respectively.
Venice programmers seem keen to prove that, even in this most testing of years, they haven’t resorted to default selections, while also keeping the lineup meaty across all sections. Here’s hoping Venice 2020 delivers on its unusual on-paper promise.