It's the oldest film festival in the world and it is fraying at the edges. Founded in 1932, Venice celebrates its 70th edition this year amid growing uncertainty about its status and relevance. Nobody can claim that Venice is a state-of-the-art festival with the most up-to-date facilities. Festival visitors complain regularly about the expense, the lack of accommodation, the bureaucracy, the cramped, sweaty press office and the hugely uncomfortable screening venues.
Venice now overlaps with the Toronto International Film Festival, which has become a far more significant industry event, especially for American films. Closer to home, the upstart Rome Film Festival, which takes place in November and is run by Venice's former director Marco Müller, is competing for films and for attention. It doesn't help that Venice's infrastructure continues to creak. A multi-million-euro plan to revamp the festival's facilities had to be abandoned three years ago when asbestos was found in the foundations of what was intended to be the festival's new flagship building. The Venice Lido, a thin strip of land 11km long, is anyway better suited as a beach resort than it is to host an international film festival.
For all its fading grandeur, Venice still attracts the stars. Festival director Alberto Barbera ticks off the names of expected visitors to the Venice Lido this year. Lindsay Lohan hasn't confirmed 100 per cent yet she'll be there for the European premiere of Paul Schrader's The Canyons (in which she co-stars with porn actor James Deen) but George Clooney, and Sandra Bullock (for opening film Gravity), Nicolas Cage (for David Gordon Green's Southern drama Joe), Scarlett Johansson (for Jonathan Glazer's Scottish-shot Under the Skin), Judi Dench (for Stephen Frears's Philomena) and James Franco (for his latest film as a director, Child of God) will all be in attendance. Bernardo Bertolucci is heading the international jury.
The roll-call seems especially impressive given Venice's supposedly dimming lustre. Venice still has an old-world glamour that younger events lack. It's the one festival at which the stars turn up for their press conference by boat.
When Barbera first attended Venice himself in 1976 for the premiere of Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900, he stayed in the celebrated Hotel des Bains. This was the luxurious hotel that inspired Thomas Mann to write Death in Venice. At the time, the future festival boss was doing his national service. He was overwhelmed by the splendour and flamboyance of the festival. For many years, the des Bains was the spiritual home of the festival. This was where the high rollers used to sit on their wickerwork chairs on the terrace, making deals on new movies. It was where stars gave their interviews.
In an act of extraordinary cultural vandalism, property developers took over this landmark hotel and closed it down in 2010 with an ill-conceived plan to turn it into luxury apartments. “This is a scandal,” Barbera mutters darkly. “For me, it is not understandable what happened – how could it be possible to let them [the authorities] close one of the oldest, most beautiful hotels in Europe just for a speculation that didn't work!”
Understandably, as they celebrate the 70th edition, the organisers aren't looking back too closely at the festival's origins. Venice was an invention of the fascist era in Italy. Its main prize in the early years was called The Mussolini Cup, after the Prime Minister and Fascist Party leader. Benito Mussolini had realised that cinema was a hugely effective propaganda tool and began to invest heavily in Italian cinema.
It used to be commonplace for Hollywood studios to launch their big autumn movies in Venice and to spend a small fortune in bringing stars over to the Lido to support them. That was why Denzel Washington arrived in the Venice Lagoon in a submarine for the launch of Crimson Tide and why the Doge's Palace was taken over for a lavish party to celebrate the premiere of Lasse Hallström's Casanova. Such stunts are increasingly rare today.
“It is not Venice which is expensive. It is expensive to bring 50 people from LA with first-class tickets and first-class accommodation,” Barbera notes of the tendency of the studios to take their films to nearby Toronto instead.
Instead of marking its 70th anniversary with an extravagant party, the festival is trumpeting its cultural credentials with a special project, Venezia 70 – Future Reloaded. Seventy leading movie directors – Bernardo Bertolucci, Paul Schrader, Abbas Kiarostami, Monte Hellman and Walter Salles among them – have contributed short films around a minute long reflecting on the future of cinema as part of a tribute to Venice at 70.
As Barbera acknowledges, such an initiative will please the cinephiles on whose support Venice depends. However, it won't excite the paparazzi. Like every other major festival, Venice must pay for the right to take cinema as an art seriously by peddling red-carpet glamour. That's why the presence of Lohan, Johansson and co is considered so important. “I like it when we are lucky enough to find a good film with great stars,” he says.
All the evidence is that the lure of the festival remains as strong as ever. After all, Venice is Venice. The festival's crumbling infrastructure can even be seen as part of its charm. “A lot of people prefer Venice to Cannes because it is less crowded, less hectic,” Barbera reflects. “At the same time, it's not easy to organise a festival on the Lido.”
The most sensible solution would be to move the Festival away from the Lido. If that happened, though, the world's oldest festival would lose part of its identity.
The 70th Venice International Film Festival runs 28 August to 7 September