Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, and Matt Dillon all showed up in masks. Temperature checks were taken and social distancing observed. Contact-tracing measures were set in place. On Wednesday, the Venice Film Festival took a tentative first step into the COVID-19 era.
Following the cancellation of Cannes and the virtual festivals at SXSW and Tribeca, Venice organizers decided to go ahead with a live event, with strict coronavirus protocols in place. As such, it will be closely watched by the organizers of other upcoming festivals—notably Toronto and New York—as they plan their own mix of virtual and IRL events in the coming months.
In Venice, all attendees must wear face masks at all times, whether inside cinemas or outside on the festival grounds. (Many of the screenings will take place in outdoor settings.) Temperatures will be checked before people are allowed to enter a screening, and every second seat in the cinemas will be left empty. Anyone attending from outside Europe’s 26-country Schengen area will have to test for COVID-19 before departure from their home country and again after arriving in Venice. There will be a red carpet but one without crowds of cheering spectators lining its path.
On Wednesday’s opening event, festival director Alberto Barbera was joined in solidarity by the directors of seven other European festivals—including Thierry Frémaux of Cannes and Tricia Tuttle of London—as he emphasized the importance of seeing a film in a theater and not streamed at home on a laptop. “The feeling of watching a film on the large screen with other people is in the very nature of the film industry,” said Barbera. “We have to support cinemas. Many are still closed today, others will never open again.”
Although the starry crowds that usually descend on Venice will be missing this year, with much of Hollywood staying home, Cate Blanchett, as the chair of the jury, will be playing a prominent role, and fellow Oscar winner Tilda Swinton is being given a lifetime-achievement award in conjunction with a screening of her latest film, Pedro Almodóvar’s The Human Voice. At the festival’s opening press conference, Blanchett told reporters that everyone associated with the event was aware of the responsibility they shouldered. “We have to reopen and reopen safely and tentatively,” she said. “The film industry has had supremely challenging months and will continue to be as we reemerge.”
But Blanchett added she was definitely grateful to be in Venice and be among adults again, after spending much of the pandemic lockdown “talking to pigs and chickens.”
The lineup may not be as strong as last year, when Joker debuted to ecstatic audiences, helping propel Joaquin Phoenix to a best actor Oscar win; Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story created immediate awards-season buzz; and a controversial grand-jury prize was awarded to Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy. But there are several notable premieres on the schedule. Among them: Gia Coppola’s Mainstream, starring Maya Hawke and Andrew Garfield; Chloé Zhao’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed The Rider, Nomadland, starring two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand; Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman, which stars Vanessa Kirby and was executive produced by Martin Scorsese; and Regina King’s directorial debut, One Night in Miami, a fictional account of the night Cassius Clay (then about to change his name to Muhammad Ali) beat Sonny Liston while surrounded by friends including Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown.
Particularly notable is the number of films directed by women at this year’s festival. Last year there were just 2 out of 21 (Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth and The Perfect Candidate by Haifaa Al-Mansour). This year, 8 out of the 18 films in competition were directed by women.
Blanchett said in an interview last week that she was pleased to be president of the jury in a year in which so many women directors were represented. “It falls upon us as an industry where, as we emerge into this brave new world, we’re not bringing bad and lazy habits with us, like ignoring diverse and interesting voices,” Blanchett told Variety. “Audiences just want to see films that inspire and ignite them and reflect their lives back to them in illuminating ways. And it’s wonderful that when they see the credits roll, they can go, ‘Oh my God, over 40% of the directors are female.’”