Cate Blanchett posed on the red carpet with and without her surgical mask, so that the assembled press photographers could pick which look they preferred. Tilda Swinton’s face mask appeared to be a golden rib cage mounted on top of a scepter — necessarily fit for purpose, but typically Swintonian. Both iconically cool actresses were at the opening ceremony of the 77th Venice Film Festival, Blanchett in her capacity as the president of the competition jury, and Swinton as the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award — and both were thrilled to be there. Inside the Palazzo del Cinema, Blanchett declared that “gathering with you all here tonight feels like some sort of wondrous miracle.” Swinton in turn spoke of the “pure joy” of being at “the most venerable and majestic film festival on earth.” No one was arguing.
Coming to the Venice Film Festival is dizzying any year. There you are, in a magical fairy-tale city of historic canals, piazzas and palazzos — and you get to watch new movies with Ryan Gosling in them, too! But this year, the people with festival lanyards hanging beneath their face masks are giddier than ever. Right up to the last minute, we couldn’t believe it would go ahead. Cannes and so many other festivals had promised to tough out the situation, before accepting that they had to be more responsible than the organizers of a Trump rally and canceling. But deaths from coronavirus have been minimal for over a month in Italy, and the Venice Festival is on the Lido, a beach resort with plenty of open space and fresh air, so here we are again, watching films in big rooms on gigantic screens, just as we were before the pandemic. At the glamorous opening ceremony, the women wore ballgowns and the men, Matt Dillon included, wore tuxedos. The whole thing felt like an almighty screw-you to the gloom and privation of 2020. Calling it a “miraculous miracle” didn’t seem like too much of an exaggeration.
And so much of it is the same as it was last year. There are the billboards around the Palazzo del Cinema, the red-and-white Biennale branding everywhere, the kiosks serving Aperol and Campari, and the stalls selling sun hats imported from China. There are the tourists moseying from the water bus to the beach, and ignoring the festival altogether. And there are the same journalists and PR people that regulars bump into every year. Numbers have dropped, of course. North and South American journalists are largely absent, hence a Brit has been given the job of writing this very report. But numerous old friends and acquaintances greeted each other in Venice with the disbelieving glee of, well, people who haven’t seen each other since before the onset of a hideous global plague. For some of us, it’s the first time we’ve ventured outside our home towns in months. For some, it’s the first time we’ve been abroad since last year’s Venice Festival. You can hardly blame us for getting over-excited.
There are a few unwelcome Covid concessions, naturally. Wearing a mask all through a film is never fun, nor is having your temperature checked on your way into an auditorium. It’s impossible to have a pistol-shaped electric thermometer pointed right at your forehead without remembering an execution in a gangster film. Inside the auditoriums, every other seat must be left empty, without exception. When one couple near me sat next to each other, an usher hurried over and insisted that they separate, like a chaperone at a school dance. The same usher told off anyone who dared to wear their face mask over their mouth but not their nose. If only the world’s public transport authorities would employ him.
For passing film fans, the only major departure from the norm is that a high fence has been erected between the red carpet and the street, so it’s difficult to glimpse the A-listers, not that there are many A-listers to glimpse. For the press and industry representatives, the big change is that tickets for screenings have to be booked online in advance, a minor administrative hassle which nonetheless removes one of the festival’s most delightful aspects: in pre-Covid times, in contrast with some competing festivals, you would pop into screenings at the last minute, on a whim, rather than queuing for an hour in advance. But that’s not worth complaining about. Now that the rest of the world is less spontaneous, it’s only fair that Venice is, too.
Overall, there is a remarkable lack of cynicism on the Lido. The films might not be as enticing as usual. There aren’t any Oscar contenders making their debuts. But everyone with whom I’ve spoken has been moved and grateful that the festival is happening at all in, to quote Blanchett, “exceptional circumstances.” Swinton put it in her own unique fashion: “Viva Venezia! Cinema cinema cinema! Wakanda forever! Nothing but love!”