Film stars vie for top spot at Venice festival

Hollywood honchos and aspiring stars will be boating into Venice for a dark, crisis-themed film festival from Wednesday, with British and American films dominating the race for the coveted Golden Lion award.

Film stars vie for top spot at Venice festival
George Clooney will be at the opening of the film festival. Photo: Efloch/Wikimedia Commons

George Clooney and co-star Sandra Bullock will rock the red carpet on the opening night, kicking off the festival with the hotly anticipated Gravity, a 3D sci-fi thriller starring the pair as astronauts.

Gravity, a harrowing space drama about a fight for survival when a debris shower destroys a shuttle, is Mexican Alfonso Cuaron's first work since Children of Men seven years ago, and promises to leave viewers gasping for air.

The film is one of several hellish tales at the festival, which features the return of the family as the vessel for social, political and economic crisis, from child abuse and abductions to absent fathers and marriage breakdowns.

The 53 films screening reflect a "dark and violent reality", festival director Alberto Barbera said in Rome last month as he unveiled the line-up.

"Filmmakers are not giving any signs of optimism or a way out," he said.

Five of the 20 flicks vying for the coveted Golden Lion prize hail from the United States, including the reportedly gruelling Parkland, Peter Landesman's re-creation of John F. Kennedy's assassination through the eyes of those battling to save him.

David Gordon Green's Joe, a brutal drama starring Nicholas Cage as an ex-con who becomes an unlikely role model for a homeless child, runs against Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves about eco-activists plotting to blow up a dam.

And James Franco fans will be watching for Child of God, an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel about a cave dweller who rejects the social order.

The large US presence in competition is "a sign of the vitality and richness of American cinema," Barbera said, though "the real novelty is represented by the UK films. We're living in a period of great revival for British cinema."

Among them, Stephen Frears – director of The Queen – unveils the true story of Philomena, starring Judi Dench as a mother seeking the son she gave up for adoption, and Steve Coogan as the journalist who helps her in her quest.

And Monty Python star Terry Gilliam unveils computer-hacker drama The Zero Theorem, featuring Oscar-winning Christoph Waltz as a reclusive maths genius.

For the first time, two documentaries will also be running for the top prize: American Errol Morris's The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld and Italian Gianfranco Rosi's Sacro GRA about a ring road in Rome.

"We've learnt that the distinction between fiction and documentaries belongs to the past, modern cinema moves constantly between the two," Barbera said.

The festival director called for an end to "the myth that Italian films are badly treated in Venice" and pointed to the inclusion in competition of a powerful debut by theatre-director Emma Dante about a female feud in Sicily.

Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki is also in the running with The Wind Rises, a Second World War story adapted from Miyazaki's own manga.

Taipei-based director Tsai Ming-liang brings the only Chinese-language work to the competition with Stray Dogs about a family living on the margins.

There has been a lot of buzz from critics already, in particular, over Israeli Amos Gitai's Ana Arabia, which was shot in one 81-minute take.

The 70th edition of the world's oldest film festival, held on Venice's Lido island from August 28th to September 7th, is expected to be light on celebrities.

The lavish parties with A-listers held on the beach near the glamorous Excelsior Hotel since the first edition of the festival in 1932 have dwindled over the past few years, though cocktail soirees aboard boats still abound.

"Our job is not to bring stars onto the red carpet," Barbera said, admitting that the decision to cut down the A-list had been driven by "economic reasons".

"It costs a huge amount to get stars and their staff to the Lido," he said.

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Italy to pay €57m compensation over Venice cruise ship ban

The Italian government announced on Friday it would pay 57.5 million euros in compensation to cruise companies affected by the decision to ban large ships from Venice's fragile lagoon.

A cruise ship in St Mark's Basin, Venice.
The decision to limit cruise ship access to the Venice lagoon has come at a cost. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

The new rules, which took effect in August, followed years of warnings that the giant floating hotels risked causing irreparable damage to the lagoon city, a UNESCO world heritage site.

READ ALSO: Venice bans large cruise ships from centre after Unesco threat of ‘endangered’ status

Some 30 million euros has been allocated for 2021 for shipping companies who incurred costs in “rescheduling routes and refunding passengers who cancelled trips”, the infrastructure ministry said in a statement.

A further 27.5 million euros – five million this year and the rest in 2022 – was allocated for the terminal operator and related companies, it said.

The decision to ban large cruise ships from the centre of Venice in July came just days before a meeting of the UN’s cultural organisation Unesco, which had proposed adding Venice to a list of endangered heritage sites over inaction on cruise ships.

READ ALSO: Is Venice really banning cruise ships from its lagoon?

Under the government’s plan, cruise ships will not be banned from Venice altogether but the biggest vessels will no longer be able to pass through St Mark’s Basin, St Mark’s Canal or the Giudecca Canal. Instead, they’ll be diverted to the industrial port at Marghera.

But critics of the plan point out that Marghera – which is on the mainland, as opposed to the passenger terminal located in the islands – is still within the Venice lagoon.

Some aspects of the plan remain unclear, as infrastructure at Marghera is still being built. Meanwhile, smaller cruise liners are still allowed through St Mark’s and the Giudecca canals.

Cruise ships provide a huge economic boost to Venice, but activists and residents say the ships contribute to problems caused by ‘overtourism’ and cause large waves that undermine the city’s foundations and harm the fragile ecosystem of its lagoon.