Venice Biennale 2023: The Show Goes On

A film festival, mostly without stars

At this year’s Venice Film Festival, the energy only felt different if you looked beneath the surface. Among the streets of Lido–the island in the Venetian lagoon where they hold the annual film festival at the beginning of September–excited filmgoers crowded the streets. Every evening, tables were full of guests, of all ages, chatting over Campari or Aperol Spritzes. For some of the screenings, the red carpet was in full swing, with paparazzi and super-fans crowded around their favorite stars. For other screenings, though–mainly those which the SAG and WGA strikes affected –the carpet was notably absent. 

In the months leading up to this year’s Biennale, fans and critics alike were perplexed, and curious, to see how the festival–an event built on the very concept of glitz and glamor–would function without most of its stars in attendance. I spent a few days in Lido and saw mixed results. 

For those who come to the festival for the movies (like myself) or for socializing, the festival was pretty much as normal as ever. The screenings were full, the lines for the bars (and bathrooms) were too long, and this year’s lineup was just like any other: some good movies, some disastrous ones. But, for those who come to the festival to see stars, and for those who like to talk about celebrity appearances online, the festival was a lot less exciting. As a whole, it seems like the festival was missing an anchor–something, or someone, that audiences couldn’t stop talking about. Instead, like at any other festival, films just came and went without leaving much of an impact. 

The most notable example of this festival’s different energy was the complicated situation surrounding its opening film. On July 6th, the festival announced that this year’s opener would be Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers. The film is the ultimate attraction. Guadagnino, director of Bones and All and Call Me By Your Name, is one of the most popular and recognizable directors working today. The film’s primary ensemble includes Zendaya, Josh O’Connell (The Crown) and Mike Faist (West Side Story). The trailer created an incredibly large online footprint. But just 24 days later, MGM delayed the film’s theatrical release and, as a result, pulled the film from the festival

Its replacement: Edoardo de Angelis’ Comandante, an Italian, World War II-set film that stars well-known Italian actor Pierfrancesco Favino. Comandante is fine. It’s entertaining enough, while lacking substance. What the film doesn’t have, though, is any sense of buzz or international reach. Sure, the areas surrounding the red carpet were packed with fans screaming at Favino for recognition and/or an autograph. Enough people saw the film at the festival’s three screenings (hosted in some of its largest venues). But, just days after its premiere, everyone seemed to forget that it existed.

It is through this lens that one could distill most of Venice’s lineup. Even for more anticipated releases, such as Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things or Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, the global reception of those movies were dimmed by the fact that much of their talent couldn’t attend their premieres. After all, compared to the glamor of famous actors on the red carpet, it’s difficult to create online conversation when the only thing to discuss is the content of the films themselves, which only a select audience has seen.

It’s hard to believe that just one year ago, Twitter was ablaze with discourse about Timothée Chalamaet’s red jumpsuit, or the Harry Styles/Chris Pine ‘spitgate’ controversy at the Don’t Worry Darling premiere. Through this lens, it’s no surprise that the festival was missing an anchor–it’s usually the actors who become the anchors of their projects, attracting global audiences to movies that are, more often than not, somewhat niche to the filmgoing world.

In what has been a sad year for film in general, as we head into the fourth month of studios refusing to pay their creatives fairly, it seems that film festivals are just another extension of that sadness. While the lack of online conversation was odd, the world will go on. The real loss at this year’s Venice–and what will likely be the losses of all upcoming film festivals–was the fact that creatives couldn’t represent the hard work they’ve done, or see the payoff of an audience experiencing their projects for the first time.

Within the scope of SAG’s and WGA’s fights for better working conditions, this loss is comparatively smaller. But, it is yet another way in which studio arrogance has neglected and disenfranchised the very people who make them money. And when watching movies in Venice, whether a hotly-anticipated world premiere or a smaller film, this is where we felt the absences most. 

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Kaveh Jalinous

Kaveh Jalinous is a New York City-based freelance journalist specializing in the world of film and television, as well as a working filmmaker and screenwriter. He is currently pursuing a degree in Film and Media Studies at Columbia University, and in his free time, he enjoys playing guitar.

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