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Venice reclaims spotlight as first COVID-19-era film fest opens

Festival attendees cycle in front of the main cinema ahead of the start of the 77th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice on Tuesday. Italy was among the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and the festival will serve as a celebration of its reopening and a sign that the film world, largely on pause since March, is coming back as well.

VENICE – Venice is reclaiming its place as a top cultural destination with the opening of the Venice Film Festival – the first major in-person cinema showcase of the coronavirus era after Cannes canceled and other international festivals opted to go mostly online this year.

Italian director Andrea Segre, whose documentary of an ethereally empty Venice during lockdown was screened Tuesday, said the festival is sending the message that despite the risks and complications, “we need theaters for cinema.”

“It’s like if you say to a painter that he can show his painting, or his fresco, only through the web,” Segre said in an interview on the Lido. “It’s exactly the same for us: Without the theater, our art has a handicap, it has a big handicap.”

But don’t be fooled: The 77th edition of the world’s oldest film festival opening Wednesday looks nothing like its predecessors.

The public is being barred from the red carpet, Hollywood stars and films are largely absent and face masks are required indoors.

Those strict measures are evidence of the hard line Venice and the surrounding Veneto region took to contain the virus when it first emerged in the lagoon city in late February. Unlike neighboring Lombardy, which became the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe, Veneto largely kept the virus under control with early local lockdowns and broad testing once the virus was widespread.

La Biennale chief Robert Cicutto said the decision to hold the festival at all was an important sign of rebirth for Venice and the film industry, and said the experience on the Lido will serve as a “laboratory” for future cultural gatherings.

“It will be an experiment on the ground of how to confront an important event” in the COVID-19 era, he said in presenting this year’s Venice lineup.

The Sept. 2-12 festival marks Italy’s return to the art world stage after it became the first country in the West to be slammed by COVID-19. Even Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible 7,” in Venice at the time for three weeks of filming, had to pull out.

Italy’s strict 10-week lockdown largely tamed the virus, but infections are now rebounding after summer vacations. Health authorities are scrambling to test passengers at airports and seaports to try to identify imported cases before they can spread.

A festival attendee has their temperature checked ahead of the start of the 77th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice on Tuesday.

Guests to the glamorous film festival are not exempt. If they arrive from outside Europe’s open-border Schengen area, they will be tested upon arrival. Australian director Roderick Mackay, premiering his Outback frontier drama “The Furnace,” has been quarantining in Italy so he could participate in person, his representative said.

Other measures to limit contagion include reserved seats, spaced apart, for all screenings and a requirement to wear masks even during screenings and outdoors.

“Clearly, we have to abide by anti-COVID measures,” said Paola Mar, Venice’s culture chief. “Each of us has a personal responsibility. And if all of us do our jobs, we can limit the harm.”

But she said the show must go on, given the importance of the film festival and the Biennale’s other longer-term cultural contributions to Venice’s economy, which depends almost entirely on tourism.

Restrictions on travel from the U.S. to Europe have meant that Hollywood films, which often use Venice as a springboard for other festivals and ultimately the Oscars, are essentially no-shows this year.

That means no sightings of Venice regulars George Clooney and Brad Pitt arriving by water taxi, no red carpet photo ops with Lady Gaga, who premiered “A Star is Born” here, or Joaquin Phoenix, whose “Joker” won Venice’s top prize, the Golden Lion, last year before going on to Oscar glory.

This year’s slightly reduced lineup still contains in-competition films from a variety of countries, but will be a mostly European affair. Italian films are well represented, including the first Italian opening-night film in years, the out-of-competition family drama “Lacci” by Daniele Luchetti.

Two Italian documentaries filmed during lockdown are making their debuts. In addition to Segre’s “Molecules,” director Luca Guadagnino, whose documentary about Italian shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo is an official out-of-competition film, offered up a last-minute short “Fiori, Fiori, Fiori!,” about reconnecting with his childhood friends in Sicily during the lockdown.

Spanish director Pedro Almodovar is premiering his first-ever English-language film, “The Human Voice,” which he filmed and edited in the weeks after Spain’s lockdown ended. The short film, an adaptation of the Jean Cocteau play of the same name, stars Tilda Swinton, who along with Hong Kong director Ann Hui will be picking up a Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award in Venice this year.

Cate Blanchett heads the main jury, which added Matt Dillon at the last minute after Romanian director Cristi Puiu pulled out.

But other A-list celebrities are largely staying away or participating in press conferences and panels via Zoom. Venice itself still has a long way to go to recover from the economic devastation of a pandemic, the halt to cruise ship stops and a lockdown on a city beloved by the jet-set.

Venice was already brought to its knees by the historic “acqua alta” floods last November, which raised deep questions about how Italy’s lagoon city will function as climate change and rising sea levels grow to be increasing threats.

“The city hasn’t worked since November,” said gondolier Maurizio Carlotto. “There’s nothing. Absolutely nothing. The hotels that are open are half-empty. You look at the restaurants at night, they’re empty.”

“To relaunch Venice, and tourism in general, we need this virus to end,” he said, looking out at an eerily empty canal. “They have to find the antidote.”

Visual journalist Brian Hendrie contributed from Venice.