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Venice Film Festival 2023: forget the strikes, this festival thrives on the frisson of controversy

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Though in its 91st year, the Venice Film Festival is officially celebrating its 80th edition in 2023. Those missing years are due to world events including the Second World War and Italy’s internal political turmoil of the 1970s. Suffice to say, the festival – which came into being under Mussolini – is no stranger to conflict and controversy.

Thankfully, this year’s travails are not in the league of those previous iterations. Festival head Alberto Barbera merely has to contend with the WAG and SAG-AFTRA strikes in the US – putting a stop to promotional work by writers and actors alike – which has led to Luca Guadagnino’s eagerly awaited tennis drama Challengers (a “romantic sports comedy-drama” which stars Zendaya, Josh O’Connor and Mike Faist) being pulled from the programme.

For the festival chief, who in 2020 successfully navigated Covid protocols to bring about one of the most applauded events on the circuit (and who brought together the heads of Europe’s other festivals in a rare show of solidarity), a change in programming and a few missing Hollywood stars is no great obstacle.

Commandante (Handout)
Commandante (Handout)

In any case, perhaps rather than being a hindrance, the strikes could be seen as an opportunity: with Challengers out of the picture, the opening night headliner spot has gone to the very much lesser-known Italian Second World War drama Comandante, directed by Edoardo De Angelis and starring the eminently likeable Pierfrancesco Favino as a submarine captain. It’s a bit like the less conventional, popular girl getting crowned Prom queen – here’s hoping she turns out to be just as beautiful when she takes her specs off, as is traditional.

And with fewer Hollywood VIPs clogging up the red carpet, this is a chance for European and world stars to bask in the limelight. Insiders are already bigging up Australian director Goran Stolevski’s Macedonian-language Domakinstovo za Pocetnici (Housekeeping for Beginners). Also enjoying some pre-festival buzz is Belgian director Fien Toch’s Holly, a highly anticipated follow-up to her standout feature Home, starring newcomer Cathalina Geeraerts and screening in competition.

Meanwhile, south-east London’s very own Luna Carmoon has her feature Hoard, a complicated semi-autobiographical tale starring Saura Lightfoot Leon (making her screen debut) alongside Joseph Quinn (of Stranger Things fame), screening in the International Critics Week section. Hopefully some of these less starry films can lap up an extra bit of deserved attention.

Housekeeping for Beginners (Handout)
Housekeeping for Beginners (Handout)

Inevitably though, quite a lot will be focused on the dirty old men of the festival, back like bad pennies. Yes, Roman Polanski and Woody Allen will both be in town with their new films, neither of which is in competition. Ninety-year-old Polanski’s The Palace is a drama set in a Gstaad hotel, while Allen’s Paris-set Coup de Chance is his first French-language film. There’s no doubting the contribution to cinema of these two auteurs, but it’s almost as if Barbera were actively looking for trouble.

More controversy was caused last week by the sight of Bradley Cooper’s prosthetic nose in the trailer for Maestro, the Leonard Bernstein biopic that Cooper not only stars in but has directed and co-written. There was some outcry at the offending appendage, with some critics saying he was performing in “Jewface”.

The Anti-Defamation League quickly came to Cooper’s defence, as did Bernstein’s family and the American Jewish Committee, whose overwhelming view was that, much like Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose in The Hours, it is clear that Cooper was merely aiming for a better likeness. If the trailer is anything to go by, viewers should be more concerned about the level of schmaltz rather than the length of the schnozz.

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro (Jason McDonald/Netflix)
Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro (Jason McDonald/Netflix)

Whether Cooper and co can attend the red carpet in person lie in the hands of SAG-AFTRA. But even if they don’t make it to Venice, don’t go thinking that a dearth of stateside celebs is going to get in the way of a good party or two – Venice is synonymous with glamour, faded or otherwise, and as ever, the night before the films start screening, Variety will host its opening bash at the venerable Danieli Hotel (itself the protagonist of a film or two, most notably From Russia with Love, The Tourist and Moonraker, and the longest-operating hotel in the city).

Festivities take place on the hotel’s rooftop terrace, which offers stunning views of nearby Saint Mark’s and the island of San Giorgio. One of the most hotly sought-after tickets, the party ensures that more than a handful of critics start their Venice viewing with a prosecco-induced hangover. More glamorous still, on September 2 Giorgio Armani will hold a couture show at the Arsenale followed by a One Night Only soirée (iterations of which have previously been held in Dubai, Paris and New York).

The Palace (Handout)
The Palace (Handout)

With a slew of films by world-renowned directors, including Sofia Coppola and Ava DuVernay, both of whom are in competition this year (DuVernay makes history as the first African-American woman in the selection, though, classic Venice, the gender parity is miles off), and with parties being defiantly held throughout the city despite the lack of American stars, it’s hard not to be excited.

The Venice Film Festival may be 80 this year, but it would seem that a little frisson of controversy is what keeps this old gal ticking: dirty old men, prosthetic schnozzles, actors strikes – bring ‘em on! Venice is ready and eagerly awaits.

The Venice Film Festival runs from August 30 to September 9; labiennale.org