Bumper year for Italy at Cannes Film Festival

France and Italy are leading the charge for the Palme d'Or trophy at the Cannes Film Festival opening this week, energized by a new generation of French female directors and an unexpected embrace of English by Italian filmmakers.

Bumper year for Italy at Cannes Film Festival
Italian directors Nanni Moretti (L), Paolo Sorrentino (C) and Matteo Garrone (R) all have films in the Palme race. Photos: AFP

The two countries are the strongest contingents in the official line-up of movies selected, underlining a European tilt at this year's festival.

France has five films in the Palme race, while Italy has three — a remarkable show of strength in a field that counts just 19 movies from around the world.

"French cinema this year is utterly impressive. We could have put in seven films," Thierry Fremaux, the festival's director and chief selector, said last month when he presented the list.

Unusually strong presence

As the host country of the Cannes Film Festival, France customarily gets a couple of berths in the official list, but five slots is very unusual.

Just one of the directors is a Cannes veteran: Jacques Audiard, who won the festival's runner-up Grand Prize six years ago for "The Prophet." He is back with "Dheepan," a movie about a Sri Lankan refugee struggling to live on the fringes of Paris society.

Newcomers Stephane Brize and Guillaume Nicloux will be presenting, respectively, "The Measure of a Man," about a supermarket security guard asked to spy on his colleagues, and "Valley of Love," a drama starring Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert and set in California's Death Valley.

Two female directors — both of whom are actresses who have moved behind the camera — are also in competition. Maiwenn, who picked up Cannes's Jury Prize in 2011 for "Polisse," had her latest movie about a passionate but complicated relationship, "Mon Roi," selected. Valerie Donzelli will be presenting her "Marguerite & Julien," about a 17th-century incestuous couple.

Additionally, Cannes's opening film on Wednesday — part of the official selection, though not in competition for the trophy — will be "Standing Tall" by female French filmmaker Emmanuelle Bercot.

The surge of a new generation of female directors in France was an overdue rebalancing, said Jean-Michel Frodon, a cinema historian and critic.

"Cannes has in the past been attacked over the number of women in its selections, and apparently the organisers wanted to correct things," he told AFP.

English invasion

The Italian contingent, by contrast, is represented only by male directors.

But, in line with a broader Cannes trend, two of the three Italian films were made in English.

"Youth", by Paolo Sorrentino — who won an Oscar last year for his Italian-language "The Great Beauty" — features an all-star UK and US cast: Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, Rachel Weisz, Harvey Keitel and Paul Dano.

"The Tale of Tales," by Matteo Garrone (who won the Grand Prize in 2008 for "Gomorra"), stars Salma Hayek and Vincent Cassel in a fantasy collection of three fables.

Only Nanni Moretti, a Cannes darling who won the Palme in 2001 for "The Son's Room," sticks mostly to Italian with his semi-autobiographical "My Mother" — but even then, US-Italian actor John Turturro adds some of the international lingua franca to the mix.

Regardless, the Italian press has stressed how unusual it is to have so many Italian movies at Cannes — some years have seen none — and have dubbed the directors "the three musketeers."

Sorrentino, Garrone and Moretti have issued a joint statement expressing their pride, and saying they hoped their Cannes showing will stimulate other Italian directors "seeking less obvious and conventional paths."

Yet for all the buzz and hopes, some in Italy's cinema industry say subsidy cutbacks are hollowing out national production.

"Over the past 35 years, Italy has become a country of television," lamented Gian Luca Farinelli, head of the Cineteca di Bolgone film archive.

"This country has forgotten what cinema has given it, how it became an instrument of education for generations of Italians."

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Venice Film Festival fights for impact amid coronavirus curbs and cancellations

What if you threw a film festival and nobody came?

Venice Film Festival fights for impact amid coronavirus curbs and cancellations
File photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP
That, in essence, is the challenge facing organisers of this year's Venice Film Festival, the glamorous annual competition where stars, critics, photographers and industry executives mingle on the bustling Lido, overlooking sandy beaches and the blue Adriatic.
Provided, of course, it's a normal year.
But in 2020, the world's oldest film festival is forced to walk a tightrope between preserving its lustre as the premier launch pad for Academy Award-winning films, while safely navigating the coronavirus crisis and averting the controversy over gender inequality that has dogged it in the past.
Opening Wednesday and continuing until September 12, the prestigious event now in its 77th year will be the first international film festival since the pandemic shuttered competitions around the world.
It has put in place a host of safety measures — from limited seating to thermal scanners, to a fan-free red carpet — to protect attendees as Covid-19 cases continue to climb in Italy and around the world.
In July, festival director Alberto Barbera declared the event “saved” as he announced the 18 films among the approximately 60 presented that would vie for the top award, the Golden Lion.
He promised that the festival would preserve the “liveliness of contemporary cinema”.
Despite its scaled-down size with theatre capacity reduced by about half, La Biennale di Venezia takes on greater importance this year due to the cancellation of rival film festivals across the globe, among them the glitzy Cannes Film Festival on the Cote d'Azur in France.
But just days ahead of the opening, organisers are scrambling to navigate uncharted territory amid uncertain attendance and last-minute cancellations.     
Whereas Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep and Scarlett Johansson provided the star firepower at last year's festival, ongoing travel restrictions — especially a travel ban from the United States into Europe — mean that most Hollywood elites will be no shows, along with actors and directors from China, India and South America.
Those arriving from outside Europe's Schengen zone will have to submit results of a Covid-19 test just before their departure, with a second test carried out in Venice, meaning that some attendees may have to cancel.
Earlier this week, the festival announced that American actor Matt Dillon would be a last-minute substitute on the jury for Romanian director Crisit Puiu.
No reason was given for Puiu's absence, but industry trade magazines noted he had given a speech earlier this month in which he said it was “inhumane” to watch movies with a mask on.
Those confirmed as attending include, among others, British actress Tilda Swinton, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, US director Oliver Stone and Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen.
More women directors
The uncertain lineup of stars and dearth of top names leaves Australian actress Cate Blanchett, president of the jury, to take up the mantle of celebrity — and social activism — at Venice.
Blanchett was the leader of the #MeToo women's march up the red carpet steps at Cannes two years ago that sought to bring attention to the lack of parity and diversity in cinema.
The presence of Blanchett helps raise such awareness while the festival seeks to stanch criticism levelled in recent years over the glaring lack of women directors in festivals' top lineups.
The Oscar-winning headliner told Variety magazine on Thursday that this year's eight women directors in the main competition lineup of Venice is “a direct response to the positive advances that have been made this year”.
Others say it is too early to tell whether a page has turned.
“It's all about being consistent and diligent and believing that women make movies as well as men, and using that in the way you programme,” said Melissa Silverstein, founder and publisher of “Women and Hollywood”, which advocates for gender diversity and inclusion in film.
Last year's festival opened under controversy after the inclusion in the lineup of French-Polish director Roman Polanski, who fled the United States after his 1977 conviction of rape of a 13-year-old girl.
There were also only two female directors in the selection. In both 2018 and 2017, only one female director was represented.   
Blanchett said more was riding on the jury's decisions this year, given the limited opportunities for filmmakers to show their work publicly, due to the coronavirus closures.
“So, whatever the deliberations the jury will make will be more impactful. I don't take that responsibility or privilege lightly.”