One of the charms of the Venice Film Festival is its stubborn refusal to change. Looking at photographs from the very first edition, way back in 1932, is disconcerting. The same mood of genteel chaos that exists today was evident in the 1930s, too. This year's Venice, the 69th edition, has unfolded in the same carnivalesque way as most of its predecessors. There have been huge outpourings of emotion (a 10-minute standing ovation for Michael Cimino after the screening of the restored Heaven's Gate), lots of booing (even at the end of the screening of Terrence Malick's sublime To The Wonder), and some Fellini-style protesting. (At the opening, performers staged a mock funeral to highlight their anger at the way Rome's legendary studios, Cinecitta, have been run down in recent years.)
Venice may be caught in a timewarp but the world around it has been transformed. The Festival's new director Alberto Barbera (in his second stint at the helm) confided that he was startled by how different his job was from when he first did it a decade ago.
"You can't compete with the fastness and velocity of the internet with a structure like a festival," Barbera lamented. Some of the sheen has been taken off even the most anticipated world premieres screening this week on the Lido. It was considered a great coup for Barbera to have secured Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master for this year's Venice competition. However, the Weinstein Company had already held various sneak previews back in the US. The online world was already buzzing with discussion about Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance as the L. Ron Hubbard-like cult leader and that of the mercurial Joaquin Phoenix as his disciple.
Phoenix was in taciturn mood at the press conference. At least, he and Hoffman turned up. Ben Affleck and Javier Bardem, the stars of Malick's To The Wonder, stayed away, citing other work commitments. This year's Venice Festival hasn't exactly been quiet but the circus-like atmosphere couldn't hide the fact that there were fewer visitors than in previous years. The antics of the paparazzi seemed half-hearted. The economic crisis is clearly beginning to bite. These days, the industry delegates and journalists come to the Lido with one eye already on rival event Toronto, which is where the films are bought and sold and the stars really do turn up for their junket interviews.
The upside is that Barbera still managed to put together a strong programme showcasing the best of world and US cinema. Any competition that has Malick and Paul Thomas Anderson in it has to be respected. There were other less heralded films that also sparked intense discussion.
Austrian auteur Ulrich Seidl is currently midway through "a Kieslowski" – the film world equivalent of a grand slam. He has directed a trilogy of features that are going to play at the three major European festivals. In Venice, his extraordinary Paradise: Faith is about an middle-aged Austrian woman obsessed by Christianity. Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter) has renounced flesh and the devil but her fascination with Christ is fraught with masochism and erotic longing. At one stage, we see her masturbating with a cross.
Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov's competition entry Betrayal, an absurdist drama about infidelity, is in a similar tragi-comic register to Seidl's film. It features an extraordinary performance from the very striking German actress Franziska Petri as the betrayed wife who embarks on an affair of her own.
It will be intriguing to see where Michael Mann and his jury bestow their prizes. The Italian audience was surprisingly hostile to Malick's love story To The Wonder, perhaps because of its heavy handed religious subtext. One critic accused him of "taking God in vain". However, in its artistry and visual inventiveness, this was surely the most startling title in competition. Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, too, was an utterly distinctive piece of filmmaking. These two American movies were the most high-profile titles in contention for The Golden Lion. Ironically, they were among the most experimental. Both eschew conventional narrative and tell their stories in a way more familiar from esoteric European arthouse than from Hollywood. it would be a major surprise if Malick and Anderson aren't in the frame when the awards are announced this weekend.