1 settembre 2022
by Manuela D’Alessandro

Venice turns 90

 Red carpet at the Venice Palazzo del Cinema
 Red carpet at the Venice Palazzo del Cinema

Gian Piero Brunetta is only ten years younger. The Venice Film Festival has had him sipping his spritz at the Lido since he was a young man, and now that she has reached 90, he really felt the urge to hand her the gift he has been wrapping for a lifetime. “I owed her, sooner or later, because the fatal attraction for the festival gave meaning to my entire life’s journey, by making me fall in love with the movies.”

Doyen of film critics, he has taught the History of Cinema at the University of Padua for decades and has now ventured into what he calls a “mission impossible”:  laying out for the publisher Marsilio the entire history of the Festival in 1328 pages and 333 pages of illustrations; a colorful chaos of “courageous commanders and captains, of fighters, explorers and discoverers, ferrymen, negotiators, respectful officials, grand commis de état, pontifical directors, shadow and passing directors, competent, balanced, courageous, incompetent, unpredictable, distracted, conformist, hetero-directed and trained juries.” He has followed about fifty editions live. 

Professor, what was it like in August 90 years ago on the balcony of the Excelsior hotel?

There was a feeling of great freedom, like nowhere in Italy, despite the fact that the tenth anniversary of fascism was celebrated precisely in 1932. Together with the scent of the sea breeze, there were hints of a secular and tolerant spirit, a festive air of free circulation of emotions and ideas. The autarkic regulations were forgotten and the feeling was one of enjoying, thanks to the cinema, an international citizenship. Count Volpi, Maraini and De Feo, the three founding fathers, did things on a grand scale. In a very short time, they managed to bring [TN: to Italy] certain films that would leave their mark, including from the Soviet Union that enjoyed just as much success among audiences and critics as the American movies. Legend has it that Maraini came up with the possibility of a film festival after seeing the transportation of spectators to watch a football match. And the popularity was no different: there were 18,000 paying spectators over the course of three weeks. If it rained, they would move to a hut on the beach with a mobile projector. No jury, just the audience that filled out rating forms. And movie stars in numbers to make any modern festival pale in comparison: Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Vittorio De Sica, to name but a few.    

Is there an aspiration, a 'feeling' of the festival that has remained intact since that first edition?

I think I can say that there was and always has been the idea of defending the art, even from the crazy urges of the producers, and respect for the sacredness of the place with a series of secular rituals that have never been lost, not even in the more difficult years. The identifying element of Venice with respect to the festival in Cannes and the others that came later is precisely the capacity to protect the art to the bitter end, even at the expense of market dialog. In this more commercial aspect, the festival has been less successful than others but, seen from another perspective, this attitude has become a strength because it has preserved the quality of the event.  

Artistic director Alberto Barbera explained that the tone of this year's films is bleak, as if the directors sensed the tragic times we are experiencing. And he revealed that a Russian film, although appreciated by the selectors, was not accepted because it was financed by Putin. How much influence does the 'outside' world have on the Festival?

Very, very important. The Lido intercepts everything: crises, revolutions, utopias. The worst years were the festivals in the 1970s filled with ideological slogans and new cultural watchwords.  Few spectators, mundanity and abolished prizes. Without the competition of Venice, in this period, Cannes became the world reference for every type of production thanks to endorsement by American cinema and the market. In 1977, the director Carlo Ripa di Meana, a socialist, organized all the events of the Biennale around the theme of dissent in Eastern countries and in the Soviet Union. The Soviet ambassador to Italy asked the Foreign Minister Arnaldo Forlani to suspend what was renamed the 'Biennial of Dissent'. The following year, Aldo Moro was kidnapped and murdered, the President of the Republic Giovanni Leone resigned, Paul VI died and there were very few voices raised at the end of the summer to complain about the absence of the festival. Another significant case of influence from the 'outside' world was the diplomatic incident of the award of the 'Golden Lion' in 1966 for the Battle of Algiers, the film by Gillo Pontecorvo rejected by Cannes and which would not be screened in France until 1971. The French delegation in Venice deserted the Palazzo del Cinema in protest. 

In your work, you describe “scandals” as “the spice of the event”. Why is that?

It is part of its DNA, right from the start. In 1934, the full-frontal nudity of Hedy Lamarr in Machai's Ecstasy marked the first of the scandals and challenges launched against forms of censorship and morality of the time.  The audiences were in shock. Over time, there were organized protests and accusations of blasphemy against The Devils by Ken Russell or The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese that the artistic director Biraghi wanted to keep at all costs in the 1988 program, despite the attacks from all directions.  From Christian Democrat politicians, with a phone call from Andreotti, to directors including Zeffirelli, who said he did not want his film mixed up with that “ugly mess” and, among other voices, Pope John Paul II. In the end, the public prosecutor, supported by eight magistrates, established that there was 'no case to answer' and that the film could be shown.  

In the 50 years of the festival, which editions have you loved the most?

Surely the 1960s, perhaps also because they were the years in which I discovered films. Years of great energy and cultural ferment in which Venice discovered the cinema of the Nouvelle Vague. And American directors like Stanley Kubrik, Italian directors such as Pasolini, Bertolucci, the Taviani brothers, Pontecorvo, Antonioni, Rosi, actors such as John Ford all arrive at the Lido. And the amazing thing is that you could bump into them in a bar. Us kids competed to get to meet the great film critics, such as Casiraghi, and there were times when, at the end of a press conference, you could talk to Godard or when the stars of the festival got mixed up in local petrochemical workers’ debates. Today, it is very difficult to get close to the directors and actors. At that time, you could also go and see all the films, which is now impossible. 

However, 1968 marked the most incredible year of the festival, with a protest that got even the big directors involved...

On August 21, the day the newspapers headlined the US bombings in Vietnam, ANAC, the National Association of Film Directors, announced a peaceful occupation of the Palazzo del Cinema, promising that the filmmakers’ assembly would rewrite the regulation transforming the festival into a “real democracy”. Director Chiarini replied that the Palazzo was a private building and they would be dealt with as criminals. And so it happens: a group of directors led by Zavattini, Pontecorvo and Pasolini marched towards the Palazzo shouting Mostra libera! (Free Festival!). In the evening, a group of fascists armed with chains and local residents with whistles converged outside the building, demanding that the festival go ahead. It ended with the police raiding the building in the evening to remove the people inside, with some, including Zavattini, lifted up forcibly in their chairs and taken outside. The board of directors decided that, however, the festival had to go on and, on August 27, the day after the protests, without issuing any official press release, the screenings began.

How is the festival doing on its 90th birthday?

I would say that it is doing very well in terms of quality with directors such as Barbera and Muller who have restored institutional and administrative solidity to the institution and, above all, have restored the central importance of art that had been brought into question in previous years. I am struck by the cultural energy and strength that the festival is still capable of unleashing.

Last and inevitable question. The film you love the most from your festivals?

That’s a difficult one... Perhaps also due to the manner of vision, I’d say Red Desert by Antonioni, who won in 1964. I gave my seat in the Arena to a woman who was nine months pregnant and sat on the steps. I can still feel the emotion of being before a film that was changing the perception and narration of Italian film. 

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