Some of Hollywood greats like Al Pacino, Ethan Hawke and Jennifer Aniston will illuminate the 71st Venice International Film Festival that opens on Wednesday on the Adriatic-swept, lagoon-washed Lido Island. These stars and, of course, Michael Keaton, who plays a struggling Broadway actor in the opening movie, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, will arrive not in limousines but in gondolas and speedboats.
Alexandre Desplat – whose works include The King’s Speech and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—will chair the main Competition jury. The nine-member panel will also have Tim Roth, Elia Suleiman and Jhumpa Lahiri. While Roth was recently seen as Prince Rainier in Grace of Monaco and earlier in Quintin Tarantino’s pictures, like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Suleiman, the Palestinian director, is best known for Divine Intervention, a modern tragic-comedy on life in occupied territory. Lahiri, the Indian-American author, attained fame with her 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies. She is perhaps better known in India for her debut novel, Namesake, made into a movie by Mira Nair with Irrfan Khan and Tabu in the lead roles.
This jury will give away several Golden Lions, and competing for them will be 20 films out of the festival’s total of 55 (of which 54 are world premieres). The director of the festival, Alberto Barbera, who came on board in 2012 after an eight-year hiatus, when Marco Mueller held the reins, said that this year’s Venice selections would reflect “a moment in which the spectre of war is rising dramatically again”.
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Among these is Good Kill by New Zealand director Andrew Niccol — who wrote The Truman Show — in which Hawke portrays a drone operator in Afghanistan.
The five American movies competing for the Golden Lions include David Gordon’s Manglehorn (with Al Pacino playing a con-turned locksmith), Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes (tracing the story of a father trying to recover his house after an eviction).
The French presence will be strong with four titles in Competition – one of which is Xavier Beauvois’s La Rancon de la gloire, based on a true story about two men trying to steal Charlie Chaplain’s coffin in Switzerland.
Italy offers Francesco Munzi’s Anime Nere (about a Calabrian-based mafia) and Saverio Costanzo’s Brooklyn-based Hungry Hearts (tackling extreme eating disorders).
Interestingly, Turkish cinema will be quite visible at Venice this year. Veteran Fatih Akin will showcase his The Cut, while newcomer Kaan Mujdeci will unroll his Sivas.
Akin caused a furore last April when he withdrew The Cut from the Cannes Film Festival lineup citing “personal reasons”. The movie starring French actor, Tahar Rahim, focusses on the touchy issue of the 1915 genocide of Armenians in Turkey under the Ottomans. The Cut is the final part of Akin’s trilogy called, Love, Death and the Devil. The first two films were Head-On and Edge of Heaven. The Cut is moving tale of an Armenian genocide survivor searching for his daughters.
And there is already a buzz over the only first feature competing for the Lion, Sivas, a delightful work about a young boy who befriends a stray dog he saves.
Japan will offer Shinya Tuskamoto’s Fires on the Plane, a jungle-based horror set at the end of World War II, while China will present Xiaoshaui Wang’s a stalker story called Red Amnesia.
Finally, India has scored a double whammy at the festival. While Court by Chaitanya Tamhane will screen at Horizons, the most celebrated category after Competition and Outside Competition, Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Labour of Love, will be part of Venice Days, a sidebar that is only comparable to Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight.
The package seems quite alluring. Yet, it has not been easy to keep the festival afloat. Despite being the world’s oldest movie festival, starting in 1932 (Cannes actually came on only in 1946), and probably most glamorous, though in a very different kind of way, the festival has been struggling – much like Venice that has been trying hard not to sink into its innumerable canals and lagoons.
"For the longest time, the festival lived off its reputation for being one of the oldest, one of the most prestigious, one of the most gorgeous events in Europe, but in the last few years it's lost a bit of its purpose, because the independent and arthouse film industry has been hard hit," said Scott Roxborough, German bureau chief for The Hollywood Reporter.
And it could not have been easy for Barbera to keep the festival relevant at a time when the Tribeca Festival in New York in April “steals” some of its artistic thunder and the Toronto Film Festival that begins next week has become a “global cinematic mega mall”. Toronto screens hundreds of movies, Venice just 55. But then these are often cinematic gems.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the 71st edition of the Venice International Film Festival, and may be e-mailed at email@example.com