The 76th Venice Biennale for the cinema kicks off Wednesday. RogerEbert.com’s correspondent, yours truly, gets to the Lido Thursday, and I’ll start filing as soon as I can.
While other prominent festivals go back and forth with flirting with awards-season bait, the Biennale always goes its own way, even when it hosting Oscar-aspirant fare. This year it opens with “The Truth,” a film by the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, a master of domestic drama. He’s here working for the first time in the French language, with a powerhouse cast fronted by Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” and “Ad Astra,” a science fiction venture from the visionary James Gray, are among the U.S. pictures premiering here. Some have been surprised to see Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” with Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, taking its bow in this prestigious festival. This move speaks both of Warners’ ambitions for the movie and the outreach of the programmers. I’m looking forward to all these pictures and more.
Among the more controversial selections, the disagreements stem not from the subject matter of their films but from the identities of their directors. “An Officer and A Spy” is a retelling of France’s notorious Dreyfus case, which exposed the rot of anti-semitism in French institutions in the early 20th century. It’s a longtime passion project for Roman Polanski, who’s still a fugitive from justice in the U.S. stemming from a 1970s rape case. “American Skin” is the new film by Nate Parker, whose hopes for “Birth of a Nation” in 2016 met an immovable object in the form of sexual assault allegations—for which he was acquitted—from some years before he began his filmmaking career. For provocative content, the festival is offering a restoration of Gaspar Noe’s formally tricky, incredibly violent 2002 “Irreversible.”
For the fifth time in a row, I’ll have the honor of serving on a panel concerning the Biennale College films. For those of you who don’t know, the Biennale College is kind of a cross between “Project Greenlight” and the Sundance Lab, albeit without the reality TV component. The festival awards 150,000 Euros to three lucky filmmakers out of over one thousand proposals (that’s pitches to you Hollywood types). There are two catches: they have to deliver finished feature films to the following festival (effectively a ten-month schedule, locked in) and they can’t accept any other funding. The critics of the panel are there to discuss, among other things, the commercial potential of that year’s films. The panel is headed by the distinguished critic and scholar Peter Cowie.