Venice 2023: The Verdict

VERDICT: The best thing about the 80th Mostra del Cinema was a stand-out film that almost all the critics were ready to get behind and support wholeheartedly – and it won the Golden Lion.

Cloudy skies over Hollywood may have kept a lot of stars from coming out, but that only focused more attention on the films, which is what a festival is supposed to be mainly about. This year the top honor went to Poor Things, a wild, rule-breaking, sexually uninhibited feminist fantasy from director Yorgos Lanthimos. Sadly, against all rhyme and reason, the punishment of a dysfunctional and unnecessary ticketing system continued to dull the splendor of a great film event — read on.

Before the start of the 80th Venice Film Festival, the word on the street suggested this was going to be an off year, anniversary or no anniversary. As was easily foreseeable, the Hollywood SAG-AFTRA strike that forbid union actors and writers to promote their films while contract negotiations were underway put a dent in the red carpet parades of A-list celebs, a blow for a festival that has been courting Hollywood for decades and depends on a high degree of glamour to keep its sponsors happy.

Still, there were other visitors to fill the gap, like Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement-winner Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love) and Chinese actress and star Shu Qi, Ferrari actor Adam Driver who talked SAG agreements at his press conference, and the unflappable Woody Allen, representing his well-liked French-language adultery drama Coup de Chance.

And of course there were dozens of talents on view from Italy. Even before the festival started, the consensus was that six Italian films in competition might be a bit much. The movies themselves lived up to that assumption, ranging from admirable to infuriating (and given their genre credentials, both Commandante and Adagio might have fared better in an out-of-competition slot). Whether any of them will benefit from their Lido premiere when they open in Italian theaters is anyone’s guess. The only one to take home a prize was Matteo Garrone’s Io Capitano, which won best director for Garrone and best young actor for Seydou Sarr.

The heavy emphasis on Italy also contributed to what has been an overall Venice shortcoming for the past ten years: the fact that the main competition, which gets almost all the media attention whether warranted or not, continues to offer a very narrow overview of what’s going on in world cinema. Out of 23 films vying for the Golden Lion this year, six were from Italy, three from France (excluding co-productions), and seven from the United States. Of the remaining seven titles, only two — Pablo Larraín’s El Conde and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Evil Does Not Exist — were not from Europe. Granted, Venice’s second competition section Orizzonti had a wider range, but those films don’t get as many eyeballs on them.

And yet Japan, to take one example, brought several very moving films to Venice. Hamaguchi’s enigmatic, deceptively simple tale of man’s relationship to nature,  Evil Does Not Exist, won the Silver Lion Grand Jury Award, the festival’s second prize. Another standout was the intimate, moving Ryuichi Sakamoto: Opus, a starkly beautiful solo performance film by the Japanese composer and sometime actor, recorded just months before his death from cancer in March. Clothed in exquisite monochrome by Sakamoto’s son, Neo Sora, this career-spanning visual album of solo piano pieces is delivered without context in a quietly devastating screen memorial, like witnessing a condemned man playing at his own funeral, which it effectively is.

Japan also won the Venice Classics Award for the best restored film, which went to Shinji Somai’s 1993 Moving (Ohikkoshi).

As the unofficial kick-off to the Oscar race, the Mostra del Cinema has often premiered films that will go on to capture an Academy Award, like Brendan Fraser in The Whale last year who won nothing in Venice but received an Oscar for best actor. This year’s possible contenders include Emma Stone, the delicious reborn heroine of Poor Things, and the two stars of the Leonard Bernstein biopic Maestro, Carey Mulligan and Bradley Cooper. And why not, the poised complexity of Caleb Landry Jones in Luc Besson’s surprising comeback Dogman, whose entire well-groomed canine cast would have won the Cannes Palm Dog paws down. And it’s not hard to see Lanthimos on the best director short-list with Poor Things or Ava DuVernay with her engaging but rather too cerebral Origin.

Two films that got away from the jury are well worth making an effort to see. In the remarkably touching Woman of, co-directors Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert bring a breath of fresh air to the dramatic, heartfelt and wry story of Poland and a trans woman who lives the first half of her life as a man. Understated and poignant, instead, is Stéphane Brizé’s Out of Season describing the meeting of two former lovers disappointed by life.

Out of comp, one noticed above all the trends, as though auteur filmmaking was taking its cue from the fashion industry about what’s in style this season. It was clear that vampire films are back with a vengeance – there were at least four in the official selection, and one of them, the quirky feature debut Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person by French-Canadian director Ariane Louis-Seize, won Best Film in the Giornate degli Autori sidebar.

Another tendency that appeared everywhere was for cinematographers to use black-and-white a lot with selected scenes in color. From Maestro to the Turkish Dormitory, from Pablo Larrain’s political satire on Pinochet El Conde to Agnieszka Holland’s story of refugees Green Border (winner of the Special Jury Prize) and Gábor Reisz’s The Theory of Everything (awarded best film in the Orizzonti section), everybody was jumping on this new aesthetic.

What Went Wrong

For those attending the festival, the relative absence of star power paled beside the ticketing disaster, one that has been going on for three years now. Besides making it stressful and sometimes impossible to book tickets, the system sometimes said a screening was sold out when there was plenty of room, which added insult to injury and frustration.

While it was a minor improvement that it’s now possible to book for two or three days at a time, instead of every single day, online queues at ticket-drop times were far too long, sometimes well over two hours. Nor did the system take into account the fact that many festivalgoers flying in from other continents had no choice but to hang out in front of their computer for hours in the middle of the night, praying for access to something they need to cover for work.

The Biennale needs one of two things: either a ticketing system that is specialized in large festivals where thousands of accredited journalists and industry people have to book at the same time to hold onto their jobs (we’re not doing this for fun are we?), OR the enlightenment that ticketing is totally unnecessary, when badges did the trick just fine for decades. If Covid returns next year and seating capacity returns to 50%, we can talk about it. But for now, ticketing just creates sleepless nights and endless frustration.

And a special mention for enforcing irrational rules should go to the ushers at the Sala Pasinetti downstairs in the Palazzo del Cinema. For fear that the Pasinetti ticket-holders could try to sneak into the gala screening at the Sala Grande by mingling with Sala Grande ticket-holders using the downstairs toilets, every Pasinetti screening started ten minutes late.