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Venice Film Festival: Cinema as the antidote to coronavirus depression

Vanessa Kirby at the premiere of ‘Pieces of a Woman’
Ok, it’s no fun watching films in a face-mask. Or sitting in a theater that smells less of popcorn than of disinfectant. But for the hundreds of film critics, journalists and film professionals who made it here to this year’s Venice Film Festival — the first major festival since the coronavirus lockdown — the new hygiene measures are a small price to pay to be able to go to the movies again. 
By holding the festival at all, Venice was taking a big risk. Cannes, Telluride and other major film festivals cancelled. The Toronto Film Festival, which kicks off later this week, will be a very local affair, with few non-Canadians expected to attend due to travel restrictions and local quarantine rules. So it’s up to Venice to be the standard bearer for the international film industry
« Venice is everything. Venice is Karlovy Vary, Venice is Cannes, Venice is Berlin, Venice is everything now, » says Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, whose English-language debut, Pieces of a Woman, starring Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf, premiered in Venice on Saturday. « I think everyone feels this. If I can talk for all filmmakers, I think we all hope that Venice happening means we are back on track. We just need it. »
Movie theaters around the world, most of them shut for months due to COVID-19 lockdowns, have begun to re-open. Everyone who made it to Venice this year is counting on the festival to help get people excited about going back to the movies. 
Greta Thunberg attending the press conference of the documentary ‘I am Greta’ virtually
Judging from the half-way mark, Venice is doing its job. 
Kirby, best known for her role as Princess Margaret in Netflix’s The Crown, wowed audiences with her raw performance in Pieces of a Woman as a mother struggling with the loss of a child, and her charming, seductive turn in Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come, in which she plays a 19th-century American pioneer wife having a love affair with a female neighbor (played by Fantastic Beasts actress Katherine Waterston). 
Actress Regina King, who already has one Oscar (for If Beale Street Could Talk) on her shelf, could soon collect a few more gongs for her directorial debut, One Night in Miami. The story of a real-life meeting between Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, soul singer Sam Cooke and American football star, and activist, Jim Brown, the film got a rapacious reception from the Venice crowd when it premiered here Monday and is already a frontrunner for the 2021 Academy Awards. 
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Outside the competition, Venice highlights so far include the delightful Greek fable Apples, from first-time director Christos Nikou — which plays out in an all-analog world where a pandemic is causing people to lose their memories — and Mainstream, from Gia Coppola (niece of Sofia, granddaughter of Francis Ford), a splashy satire of social media celebrity, starring Andrew Garfield. 
Alongside Kirby, the star of Venice 2020 has been teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who didn’t attend in person but patched in via video link on Friday to talk about the documentary on her life, I Am Greta.
The Fridays for Future icon said the film, from documentarian Nathan Grossman, shows the real Greta. « Not the person that the media frames me to be, not the angry, naive child who sits in the United Nations general assembly screaming at world leaders. Because that’s not the person I am, » she said. « So, I think he definitely made me seem like a more shy, nerdy person, which is the person that I am. »
Not without a face mask: Tilda Swinton and director Pedro Almodovar at the premiere of ‘The Human Voice’
But the message of this year’s Venice Film Festival was summed up best by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, who attended to present a short film, The Human Voice, starring Tilda Swinton:
« The cinema is not going through the best period, but that is why we have to invite people to go to the cinema, » he said. « [Coronavirus] lockdown has shown us that our homes can be a place where we are in prison. Where you can work, eat, and live inside. [But] the antidote to all this is the cinema. It is the opposite of all that. Going to the cinema means going on an adventure. »
For the first time in more than a decade, an Italian film receives the honor of opening the Venice International Film Festival: The drama « Lacci » will be screened out of competition and depicts the story of a marriage threatened by infidelity. Directed by Daniele Luchetti, it is based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Domenico Starnone.
This year’s film festival on Venice’s barrier island of Lido feels distinctly Italian: Four of the 18 films competing for the top prize of Golden Lion are from the country. For example, « Padrenostro » (pictured here) by director Claudio Noce is about the political terrorism and violence that shook Italy in the 1970s, told from perspective of a child.
A German film is competing for the Golden Lion in Venice: « And Tomorrow the Entire World » by director Julia von Heinz is about the young anti-fascist activist Luisa, who uses increasingly radical means of defense against society’s shift to the right. Luisa is played by rising star Mala Emde, shown in the image here.
His hands seem to work wonders: In « Never Gonna Snow Again, » actor Alec Utgoff plays the role of Ukrainian migrant Zhenia, who works as a masseur for the Warsaw upper class and develops into a kind of guru for the unhappy rich. The Polish contender in Venice is also in the race for the Oscar in the category best international feature film.
In recent years, there has been strong criticism of the lack of equality in the film nominations, but this year, eight of the 18 films are by women directors. One of them is Susanna Nicchiarelli’s historical biopic « Miss Marx » about the life of Karl Marx’ youngest daughter, Eleanor Marx. The political activist is played by Romola Garai.
« Nomadland » tells the tale of a woman in her 60s who loses everything during the Great Recession of the 2000s and ends up traveling in a van through the western United States as a kind of modern nomad. It is a film with a top-class cast, with lead character Fern played by the two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand. Parallel to Venice, the film is also celebrating its premiere in Toronto.
Streaming servicers and film festivals — a tricky business. The Cannes Film Festival banned Netflix, Amazon and other such productions, but they are welcome in Venice. Streamer Hulu is presenting its documentary « Greta. » Director Nathan Grossman (2nd from left) accompanied climate activist Greta Thunberg (2nd from right) for months — even during her crossing of the Atlantic in August 2019.
This year’s jury is chaired by Cate Blanchett, who was awarded Best Actress in Venice in 2007 for her role in « I’m Not There. » Along with her, directors Veronika Franz, Joanna Hogg and Christian Petzold, actors Matt Dillon and Ludivine Sagnier and author Nicola Lagioia will decide which film will receive the coveted Golden Lion.
The first prize winners were announced before the festival’s start on September 2: The Chinese actress and director Ann Hui and the British Oscar award winner Tilda Swinton were each awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. This honorary award has been in existence since 1970, when the first winner was none other than Orson Welles. (Adapted by Louisa Schaefer)
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