In recent years, the Venice International Film Festival has warmed to its role as a gateway to the fall movie season. The focused lineup of 73 new feature films presents a manageable alternative to the big-tent sprawl of the Toronto International Film Festival, which opens a week later. The Italian festival’s track record of Academy Award wins in different categories by its opening-night films — ”La La Land,” “Birdman” and “Gravity” — has earned it a reputation as a kingmaker, or at least a canny oddsmaker.
The 74th edition, which runs Aug. 30 to Sept. 9, opens with another potential high-achiever: Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” a fantastical drama about human miniaturization starring Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig. The film marks another canny coup by Venice’s head programmer, Alberto Barbera, whose relationship with Mr. Payne dates to the 1990s, when he screened the director’s graduation film in the Torino Film Festival.
Like Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” and other opening-night predecessors, “Downsizing” is a pedigreed American film with stars, a hook and an ambitious use of genre. Mr. Payne, though a generation older than Mr. Chazelle, also had his roots in indie film before moving on to larger canvases and even bigger names. From “Downsizing” to “Gravity,” a particular curated brand of cinema is discernible in Venice’s opening-night selections, one that captures the imagination while delving into character psychology.
“The premise may be a bit fantastical, but I’m more interested in human beings and, in a way, the banal side of a fantastic idea. It’s really a science fiction idea as an excuse to enter the story,” Mr. Payne said of “Downsizing” in a telephone conversation during a break from putting the finishing touches on the film’s coloring.
“Downsizing” is one of three highly anticipated genre-related efforts from big studios in competition for Venice’s Golden Lion honors. Darren Aronofsky returns with “Mother!,” a thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence; “The Shape of Water” is the Cold War-era tale of an aquatic creature from the fantasy-friendly director Guillermo del Toro.
Other high-profile selections include “Suburbicon,” starring Matt Damon and directed by George Clooney from a screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen; the period picture “Victoria and Abdul,” starring Judi Dench as Queen Victoria of England and directed by Stephen Frears; Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed,” with Ethan Hawke as an angst-filled priest; “Loving Pablo,” with Javier Bardem as Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord; the John Woo action film “Manhunt”; and Martin McDonagh’s salty Southern drama “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” starring Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson.
Two films pair screen stars of a certain age: “Leisure Seeker” stars Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren as an aging couple who hit the road while dealing with Alzheimer’s, and “Our Souls at Night” follows widowed neighbors played by Jane Fonda and Robert Redford (who will receive Golden Lions for lifetime achievement).
These titles speak to Venice’s appeal for mainstream films seeking a classy international debut and an early platform well in advance of their theatrical premieres in the United States. But the festival has also traditionally been home to its share of adventurous art-house fare. In that regard, Mr. Barbera, who heads what is billed as the world’s oldest film festival, believes the landscape of contemporary cinema has definitively changed.
“Fifteen or 20 years ago, there was a kind of auteur cinema you could expect to find in every festival,” Mr. Barbera said in an interview from the festival’s headquarters on the Lido in Venice. “Now it’s much more difficult for filmmakers to express themselves the same way and to finance the films.”
Despite Mr. Barbera’s observations, this year’s festival will offer premieres of films from an array of independent voices at various points in their careers. These include the new films by Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-Eda, “The Third Murder”; Israel’s Samuel Maoz, “Foxtrot”; Takeshi Kitano, “Outrage Coda”; also the festival’s closing film; “The Insult,” from the Lebanese-born director Ziad Doueiri; and “Lean on Pete,” from Andrew Haigh, the director of “45 Years.”
But two titles will probably top the watch list of the festival’s cinephiles: Lucrecia Martel’s colonial drama “Zama,” her first in nearly a decade, screening out of competition; and “Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno,” from Abdellatif Kechiche, the outspoken director of “Blue Is the Warmest Color.”
The premiere of “Mektoub” will occur after months of reports concerning Mr. Kechiche’s dispute with a financier, which was followed by his attempt to auction off the Palme d’Or award he received at Cannes for “Blue.” Reached by email, Mr. Kechiche struck an optimist’s tone.
“In my films, I have always tried to achieve a certain faithfulness, a fidelity to how things are when they happen, and that still holds true for me. But in ‘Mektoub, My Love’ especially, I think the audience will also recognize an honest search for new talent. My protagonists, all of them first-time actors on the big screen, are wonderful,” wrote Mr. Kechiche, who won a Golden Lion in 2007 for “The Secret of the Grain.”
Even as “Zama” and “Mektoub” attract critical attention, one of this year’s most controversial films lurks in the festival’s Horizons section. “Caniba,” directed by the nonfiction pioneers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel (“Leviathan”), centers on Issei Sagawa, an aging Japanese cannibal. Jailed but ultimately released after eating a woman in France, Mr. Sagawa has made a living from his life story. “Caniba” promises an eyebrow-raising, intimate look at the man and his caretaker brother.
“I wanted to push collaboration further than filmmakers usually do with their subjects, and I knew he was interested in dying by being eaten by someone he desired,” Ms. Paravel wrote of Issei Sagawa in an email. “I wasn’t sure that he would want me to eat him, or that I would be able to. But I felt I at least partly understood his desire.”
Other nonfiction films in Venice may pale beside the mysteries of “Caniba,” but even sans cannibalism, the rest of the documentary lineup is robust.
Frederick Wiseman examines a literary and social institution in “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library.” Errol Morris rolls out his hybrid Netflix series “Wormwood,” about the unexplained death of a Cold War military scientist. William Friedkin, the director of “The Exorcist,” confronts actual ghost-busting in “The Devil and Father Amorth.” The Chinese art star Ai Weiwei surveys world immigration in “Human Flow,” while Stephen Nomura Schible portrays a leading contemporary composer in “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda.” The comedy trickster Andy Kaufman gets his close-up in Chris Smith’s new documentary, with the help of Jim Carrey. And the Bronx’s own Abel Ferrara takes a look at today’s Rome in “Piazza Vittorio.”
This year, in addition to cultivating a larger-than-life documentary slate, Mr. Barbera is taking the plunge with the virtual reality trend that has swept across the festival world. Venice’s twist is a competition devoted to virtual reality, subjecting an infant medium to the same scrutiny as film, with the help of a jury led by the director John Landis.
“This is a bet,” Mr. Barbera said. “The last two years, everybody talked about V.R. There were V.R. installations in Cannes, Venice, Sundance, Tribeca. So we thought that it was the right moment. There are big investments from the film industry in researching and implementing the technology, and at the same time curiosity from the filmmakers and a willingness to experiment.”
The V.R. competition includes work by Laurie Anderson and Tsai Mingliang, and at 22 titles, outnumbers even the film competition. Other nontraditional cinematic offerings this year include Mr. Landis’s own 3-D version of his “Thriller” video. And just a vaporetto ride away is Venice’s ongoing art Biennale, featuring film-related work: Candice Breitz’s film installation about refugees starring Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore, and a video piece by the Turner Prize winner Douglas Gordon.
All of which brings new meaning to the notion of a festival competition: a competition for attention. By opening with “Downsizing” and featuring a potent mix of anticipated titles and conversation-starting nonfiction, this year’s film festival is poised to continue attracting the notice of film fans beyond those populating its cinemas.
Source: Written by NICOLAS RAPOLD for New York Times