Venice 2020

in 77th Venice International Film Festival

by Jonathan Romney

Which of us thought we would actually attend a festival again this year? After Cannes was cancelled and a host of festivals ingeniously adapted to online existence, it fell to Venice to take the leap and show that international cinema culture was ready to venture out into the open in the year of COVID-19. The Mostra rose to the challenge with confidence and a keen sense of organization. Visitor numbers were reduced, so that social distancing could be observed in the cinemas, masks were worn both in theatres and all around the Casino compound and for the first time, professional delegates had to book tickets in advance online, in a system that worked with admirable smoothness. Spontaneity was the one casualty – you had to think ahead, and you couldn’t just grab a seat next to your friends. But it meant very little queueing – and it’s never been easier to get a coffee in the Casino gardens.

Better yet, the selections were of a very high quality. The notable fact about Venice this year was that the big US studio films were absent – a striking change, given how visible Hollywood has been here in recent years (Ad Astra, First Man, Black Swan, The Shape of Water, last year’s surprise winner Joker). In fact, the Golden Lion went to a film from Searchlight Pictures (now part of Walt Disney), yet Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland could not have been less Hollywoodian either in its content or its aesthetic, and was a very worthy, and moving winner.

Delegates from the US and other parts of the world simply could not come to Venice, which meant less confidence in the industry about promoting major productions. But that resulted in a festival that was more down-to-earth, and more of a showcase for imaginative works by highly individual film-makers – in other words, a rich spread of world cinema in the classic sense that has perhaps become unfashionable.

As a member of the six-strong FIPRESCI jury, alongside Jihane Bougrine, Hugo Emmerzael, Francisco Ferreira, Silvana Silvestri and Tommaso Tocci, my job was to watch all the competition films, while three of us concentrated on parallel sections – so my comments here are mainly on competition titles. But two things, I think, struck everyone this year. One was the astonishing wealth of female performances (men seemed to be somewhat taking a back seat) from names including Frances McDormand (Nomadland), Jasna Đuričić Quo Vadis, Aida?), Tilda Swinton (The Human Voice), Yulia Vysotskaya (Dear Comrades), Vanessa Kirby and Katherine Waterstone (The World to Come), Kirby again in Pieces of a Woman (for which she won the Best Actress award) and all the performers (I calculated 12) who play Emma Dante’s Macaluso Sisters at different ages. The other thing was the strength of the documentaries: Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall, Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno, Nathan Grossman’s I Am Greta, and the last work by the late British documentarist Luke Holland, Final Account,s which chillingly offered the testimonies of Germany’s last living Nazis.

For our prize in the parallel sections, my jury colleagues chose the Iranian film The Wasteland by Ahmad Bahrami, which I’m now impatient to see. For our competition prize, we chose The Disciple by Chaitanya Tamhane, who previously impressed the festival world with his 2014 drama Court. About a young musician determined to master the disciplines of Indian classical music, it was an artistically and intellectually profound meditation on the quest of perfection in an imperfect world – and an affirmation of faith in the values of art, which struck a vital chord in this of all years.

Jonathan Romney