Depp and Fiennes top Venice film fest line-up

Hollywood stars Johnny Depp and Ralph Fiennes top a powerful line-up at this year's Venice film festival, with US and Italian films dominating the competition for the Golden Lion, from war dramas to rock-star thrillers.

Depp and Fiennes top Venice film fest line-up
Johnny Depp on the red carpet in Venice in 2007. Photo: Christophe Simon / AFP

Hearthrob Jake Gyllenhaal of 'Brokeback Mountain' fame opens the world's oldest competition, which runs from September 2 to 12, with Baltasar Kormakur's 3D mountain thriller “Everest” from Universal, also starring Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington.

Picked to open the season with a bang, the film is based on the true story of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster and is bound to thrill as much as the 2013 festival's hit opener 'Gravity' – though it will have to fight to top the popularity of 2014's opener 'Birdman'.

Festival director Alberto Barbera has fought hard this year, the 72nd edition of the festival, to bring films to Venice before they head to Toronto.

His hopes will be pinned on A-lister Depp gracing the red carpet for 'Black Mass', in which he plays one of the most famous US gangsters.

Director Scott Cooper's biopic depicts the true story of mobster Whitey Bulger and his attempts to take down a rival mafia family by helping out the FBI, and also stars Kevin Bacon, and Britain's Sienna Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch.

The 21 films in competition include offers from Australia, China, France, Israel, Poland, South Africa and Venezuela. They face a jury headed by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, and nine jurors including actresses Diane Kruger and Elizabeth Banks, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan and British director Lynne Ramsay.

The line-up includes “great films by auteurs, the return of great masters and many directors showing in the competition for the first time,” Barbera told a press conference on Wednesday, promising “surprising, particularly innovative” flicks this year.

Sex, rock stars and revenge 

Competing for the US, director Cary Fukunaga will show child soldier drama 'Beasts of No Nation', while Drake Doremus presents 'Equals', a futuristic love story said to echo George Orwell's novel '1984', in which emotions have been eradicated.

All eyes will also be on stop-motion animated film “Anomalisa” written by Charlie Kaufman – the Oscar winning screenwriter behind 'Being John Malkovich' and 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' – about a man who is crippled by a mundane life.

There is already a buzz about Britain's Eddie Redmayne, who stunned critics with his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in 'The Theory of Everything', and his performance as one of the first people to have sex reassignment surgery in Tom Hooper's 'The Danish Girl'.

Michael Keaton will be back on the Venetian Lido island after his 'Birdman' triumph with Tom McCarthy's 'Spotlight', playing out of competition, based on the true story of the Boston Globe's investigative coverage of the Catholic child abuse scandal.

Italy is also a strong contender for the coveted Lion this year with a new horror flick from Marco Bellocchio – whose “Dormant Beauty” competed in 2001 – called 'Blood of My Blood', about a man who is seduced by a nun and her grisly fate.

French actress Juliette Binoche will star in 'The Wait' by first-timer Piero Messina, who has studied under Oscar-winner Paolo Sorrentino and appears to have picked up many of his visual tricks in his Sicily-set story about the relationship between two women.

Italian director Luca Guadagnino is also in the running with US thriller 'A Bigger Splash', starring Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes, about a famous rock star and a filmmaker whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of an old friend and his daughter.

Other high-calibre international auteurs this year include Amos Gitai, Alexander Sokurov, Pablo Trapero and Atom Egoyan.

Egoyan will be presenting 'Remember', a revenge drama starring Christopher Plummer, in which he plays a man who hunts down a Nazi guard who murdered his family 70 years earlier and is now living in the United States under an assumed identity.

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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.”