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How to Discover Good Movies: The Secret Appeal of the Venice Film Festival

How to Discover Good Movies: The Secret Appeal of the Venice Film Festival

“So what are you looking forward to?” someone asked, on the vaporetto from Venice airport to my apartment at Ca’ d’Oro. It’s a standard conversational gambit between near-strangers: Film Festival Question #4, part of a set which includes How Long Are You Staying? and How’s Your Hotel? (And, increasingly, Did You Hear About [insert name] Losing Their Job?) 
But that didn’t make it conspicuously easier to answer. 
What was I looking forward to at the 71st edition of the Venice Film Festival? No single title came immediately to mind. Roy Andersson is a director I admire. (His “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” premieres in competition.) Fatih Akin, too. (He premieres “The Cut.”) But if I had to declare anything, it had less to do with the satisfaction or disappointment of settled expectations (as one gets from Cannes, say), than an eager, general willingness to be surprised.

Searching For Gems

This is what Venice can do — and also what it should. Last year’s edition was remembered mostly for world-premiering “Gravity” and “Under the Skin,” both films preceded by long trails of advance publicity and internet speculation. But for me, the greatest moment at the festival was one of discovery and surprise: seeing Noaz Deshe’s extraordinary “White Shadow.” A film about which I had heard nothing, from a filmmaker of whom I knew nothing, and which, consequently, arrived onscreen with the full force of revelation. Similarly, a few years earlier, Aleksey Fedorchenko’s “Silent Souls.” 
Who knew such wonders existed? They each felt like dispatches from some other cinematic universe, overlooked, marginalized, but vital and thrilling nonetheless.
There’s no film as big as “Gravity” here this year — no major Hollywood release at all. And by now, the problems with this festival as a launchpad are well-established: The clammy proximity of the Toronto International Film Festival — and, to a far lesser extent, Telluride. The prohibitively high prices on the Lido. The steady decline in the ranks of international press, and the concomitant disinclination of buyers and sales agents). The lack of — the impossibility of — a sustainable market. Taken singly, these are daunting prospects; considered together, they represent an existential threat for a festival that was, until only a decade ago, considered a peer of Cannes and Berlin.
Consequently, as it enters its eighth decade, Venice finds itself caught between two varieties of complaint. Longtime visitors bemoan its steady slide from eminence, with its worrying intimations of their own extinction; while newer attendees, hungry for bylines, gripe that the lineup is too erratic and there’s not enough star power either to interest their editors or recoup their costs. (Interviews, in Venice, are increasingly elusive and/or perfunctory — for print journalists in particular.) 
But to dwell on these things is to ignore, I think, what the festival often does do well. Which is to throw into sharp relief the unexpected, uncommon and unguessed-at. It is, in a quiet way that’s rather at odds with the brash vulgarity of Italian culture, a festival of discovery, with all the good and bad that entails.

Facing Competition

Admittedly, it’s been forced into that position by its somewhat diminished circumstances; it is undeniably a victim of other festivals’ aggressive positioning and petitioning. But it’s retained a curatorial rigor, passed down from Marco Muller to current director Alberto Barbera — and with it, a genuine capacity to surprise. Far more so, perhaps, than either Cannes, with its increasingly fixed roster of alumni and exclusions, or Toronto, which is too vast and studio-dominated these days to really “discover” anything. 
The main Venice lineup is unpredictable, a smattering of not-quite-ready-for-primetime names and rank outsiders. (Xavier Beauvois and Im Kwon-taek and Peter Bogdanovich? Sure. Why not?) And its sidebar sections — Orrizonti (its Un Certain Regard) and Venice Days (its Quinzaine) and Settimana Internazionale della Critica (work it out) — are veritable lucky dips, with wildly variable levels of quality, ambition and achievement. As a colleague from the trades put it, Venice’s programming today is “not as predictable and clubby as Cannes, not as joyless and doctrinaire as Berlin. It’s increasingly its own, separate thing — and that’s not at all bad.” 
The real question is, what exactly is a Lido premiere worth these days — and it’s one which the industry seems to have ever more trouble answering. Certainly, with steadily fewer buyers and international press attending, one’s chances of making a splash here seem increasingly remote.
This, you have to imagine, is what prompted the sales agents for Christian Petzold’s “Phoenix” and François Ozon’s “The New Girlfriend” to deny the festival their world premieres; both films are heading to Toronto instead — a move that strikes me as somewhat ill-considered. (Big names on the Euro fest circuit, Petzold and Ozon are going to be just another two foreigners in North America. Especially when there’s more than 250 other features clamoring for their moment in the spotlight.)

Embrace the Challenge

Still, I can’t help but think that the answer resides in the problem. A lack of access to the highest-profile work obliges you to be inventive and resourceful. (I worked at the Edinburgh Film Festival for a few years. Believe me, I know whereof I speak.) Or, to put it another way, when life hands you limoni? You make limoncello. 
It often fails, sure. It frequently disappoints. (The second film I caught this year, Kim Ki-duk’s “One on One,” was inept even by his standards.) Yet its highs, when they come, feel all the more exhilarating for the sheer element of surprise, and the relative lack of hype. This is not a tastemakers’ festival, a nodding party for the self-appointed cognoscenti. The works are the thing, and much like the water that surrounds them, they invariably find their own level.  
The 71st edition of the Venice Film Festival begins today. Indiewire will be reviewing films from the program in the coming days alongside our coverage of the Telluride and Toronto film festivals.

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