The Venice Film Festival is wrapping up the first COVID-era international cinema showcase Saturday, with critics, filmmakers and actors alike cheering organizers for having dared to hold the festival amid a pandemic and demonstrating how to go to the movies again, safely.
The coveted Golden Lion awards were being handed out Saturday night before a masked audience conspicuously lacking in Hollywood star power, given coronavirus travel restrictions kept all but a few American productions away from Venice.
Eighteen films were vying for the top awards in the main competition, including a record eight directed by women. Cate Blanchett headed the main jury.
That the 10-day festival happened at all was hardly a given, after northern Italy in late February became ground zero of the coronavivrus outbreak in Europe. Once the virus spread, the Cannes Film Festival was canceled outright, and other big international festivals in Toronto and New York opted to go mostly online.
But after Italy managed to tame infections with a strict 10-week lockdown, Venice decided to go ahead, albeit under safety protocols that would have been unthinkable for a festival that has long prided itself on its spectacular visuals and glamorous clientele.
Face masks were required indoors and out, including throughout screenings. Reservations for the general public and critics alike were required in advance, with theater capacity set at less than half. The public was barred from the red carpet and paparazzi, who would normally chase after stars in rented boats as they arrived on the Lido aboard water taxis, were given socially distanced positions on land.
While it’s too soon to say if the measures worked due to COVID-19′s long incubation period, there were no immediate reports of infections among festival-goers. Compliance with mask mandates and social-distancing requirements appeared to be high.
“We were a little bit worried at the beginning, of course,” festival director Alberto Barbera said. “We knew that we had a very strict plan of safety measures and we were pretty sure about that, but you never know.”
Hong Kong director Ann Hui, who received a Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award, almost didn’t make it after she couldn’t get on her scheduled flight because of border restrictions. In the end, she arrived to collect the award and to see her out-of-competition film “Love After Love” make its world premiere.
By all indications, movie lovers inside the industry and out appreciated the effort and the symbolic significance of the world’s oldest film festival charting the path forward on getting people back into movie theaters.
“It’s a moment of rebirth for everyone, for the whole world,” said Emma Dante, the Italian director of the in-competition “The Macaluso Sisters.” “This festival is really an important moment of encounter, of beginning to dream again and be together again, even with the norms and following all the safety protocols.”
Film correspondent Emma Jones said that aside from “a few teething problems” with the online reservation system, the festival went off better than she expected.
“It feels safe in there, it feels socially distanced,” she said of the venues, where one and sometimes two or three seats were left unoccupied for every seat that was reserved. “Everyone is wearing their masks.”
Jones noted that the lineup of films lacked the usual Hollywood blockbusters – think “La La Land,” and “The Shape of Water” — that in recent years have used Venice as a springboard to Oscar fame. While the festival featured films from Iran, India, Australia and beyond, it was heavily European.
“It’s a COVID lineup. This is a COVID festival. There’s no use pretending anything else,” Jones said.
But she added: “It would feel really off-note, I think, to have had a red carpet with screaming fans and celebrities walking down it and people talking about who wore what. Twenty-twenty is not the year for those kind of discussions.”
Instead, she said, Venice was a film festival that focused on the integrity of the films. The diversity of countries represented is a development that festival director Barbera has greeted with particular satisfaction.
“This is my personal reward,” he said of the lineup. “We were lucky to receive a lot of submissions from all over the world, and apart from a few missing titles from the Hollywood major film studios, most of the countries are represented in Venice and the quality of the lineup is really very high.”