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Venice Film Festival turns 75

"At the Oscars it's the money that counts, in Venice it's the film-makers and actors," Hollywood star Sean Penn waxed lyrical about the Venice Film Festival some years ago.

india Updated: Aug 04, 2007 18:25 IST
Peer Meinert
Peer Meinert

"At the Oscars it's the money that counts, in Venice it's the film-makers and actors," Hollywood star Sean Penn waxed lyrical about the Venice Film Festival some years ago. That might sound good, but it's no longer totally true.

After all, the great times of auteur cinema, avant-garde and independent directors are long over at the Venice Film Festival as well. But the summer entertainment at the Lido still has its very special attraction.

On August 6, the Venice Film Festival celebrates its 75th anniversary as the oldest festival worldwide - and no doubt the finest.

With the Grand Canal as its backdrop, the Adriatic beach as its stage, and its stars waving from their gondolas, even the glamorous Cannes Film Festival is left in the shade.

Pessimistic critics have been claiming persistently that Berlin and Cannes have been snatching the best films from the Lido. But the festival's director, Marco Mueller, has over the last four years managed to lure more Hollywood films to Venice than ever before.

This year's festival alone (August 29 to September 8) can boast stars such as George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Scarlett Johansson.

Commercial interests joined with dictator Benito Mussolini to create the first film festival when hoteliers on the Lido - the city's atmospheric bathing island - saw their guests withdrawing to other beaches.

The biannual art festival, which already existed then, only attracted few visitors. But Mussolini, who had already recognized film as his "most powerful weapon", wanted to improve his international image.

Ironically, the first film to be shown on the patio of the Excelsior Hotel was "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" by Hollywood director Rouben Mamoulian.

Some critics have seen this event as the "official baptism" of film as modern art. The today much-coveted Golden Lion award didn't exist back then, but during the 1930s Venice was the uncontested stage for films from all over the world.

Film directors like Rene Clair, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Jean Renoir and Ernst Lubitsch all flocked to the Venice. The festival enjoyed its freedom until 1938, when Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia received an award. But afterwards the biannual festival turned into an exclusively German-Italian event, which Joseph Goebbels - the head of the Nazis' propaganda machine - attended in his white linen suit.

"A major part of the films were mediocre war films," a US critic once wrote. Venice had its heyday in the 1950s and 60s during Italy's "dolce vita" period featuring filmmakers such as Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

There have never again been that many internationally renowned Italian directors. And French filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard, Louis Malle and Francois Truffaut were all discovered in Venice.

In 1968, Alexander Kluge was the first German to receive a Golden Lion for

The Artist In The Circus Dome: Clueless

, when the international cinematic community discovered the Young German Film.

But the award would remain the last one for many years as the protest movement of the Left attempted to kill off the glamorous event.

At times the iconoclasts of the moving picture even staged an "anti-festival," while the Venice festival was cancelled completely for years. Only in 1979 was another Lion awarded.

"We have misjudged the realities of a film industry ruled by economic laws," communist film director Gillo Pontecorvo said back then. "The only outcome is that competing festivals have benefited from Venice's disappearance."

Now the same laws apply to Venice: seven out of 21 competing films are from the US.

Only the Germans have been leaving Venice empty-handed for years, and there's no German director competing this time round.

Memories of the last German winner of a Golden Lion seem far off: it was Wim Wenders with "The State Of Things". And that was a quarter of a century ago.

First Published: Aug 04, 2007 17:36 IST