Thrillers to terrorise Venice in Golden Lion bid

The oldest film festival in the world is going big on nail-biters this year with thrillers dominating the race for Venice's coveted Golden Lion award, organisers said on Thursday.

Thrillers to terrorise Venice in Golden Lion bid
Ethan Hawke stars in 'First Reformed'. Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP

Stars George Clooney, Matt Damon, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda are expected to be among the A-listers spotted posing on the red carpet or hopping into gondolas at the gala's 74th edition.

This year the festival, a key launchpad for heavyweight Oscar contenders, has gone big on US flicks in particular.

Hollywood heavyweight Ethan Hawke will star in director Paul Schrader's “First Reformed”, a spine-chiller about members of a church who are tormented by the deaths of loved ones – and harbouring a dark secret.

It goes up against hotly-awaited “mother!” by Darren Aronofsky, the US director behind the 2010 psychological horror film “Black Swan”. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, the film tells the tale of a couple thrown into turmoil by uninvited guests.

And Britain's Martin McDonaugh – best known for 2008 black comedy “In Bruges” – will hope to suitably unnerve the jury with thriller “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, starring Frances McDormand as a middle-aged mother who challenges police after her daughter is murdered but no killer is found.

It's not all white-knuckle suspense: the beachside festival on the Lido island, which runs from July 30 to August 9 and is set to feature 21 world premieres, will kick off on a lighter tone.

Oscar-winning US director Alexander Payne's latest sci-fi comedy “Downsizing” will open the show, starring Matt Damon as a man who realises he would have a better life if he shrank, and Kirsten Wiig as his indecisive wife.

Secrets, gangsters and exorcisms

Damon also stars in Clooney's new flick “Suburbicon”, a dark comedy written by the Coen brothers and set in 1959, in which he plays a father of a suburban family that discovers the neighbourhood's dark underbelly of violence.

Teaser pictures released by Paramount show a very blonde Julianne Moore co-starring in Clooney's sixth directorial effort.

Chief juror Annette Bening and her panel of experts – including filmmakers Michel Franco and Edgar Wright and actress Rebecca Hall – are likely to be already lusting after the latest by Mexican fantasy master Guillermo del Toro.

The Cold War-era love fairytale story “The Shape of Water” by the man behind “Pan's Labyrinth” (2006) stars Sally Hawkins as a custodial worker in a government laboratory who discovers and smuggles out a top-secret experiment.

Two documentaries are also in the running: Frederick Wiseman's “Ex Libris, New York Public Library” and Ai WeiWei's “Human Flow”, which was filmed in 23 countries and explores the staggering scale of today's global migration issue.

Tunisian-French director Abdellatif Kechiche will bring “Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno”, a 1980s coming-of-age story, while Italy's Paolo Virzi will premiere “The Leisure Seeker”, starring Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland.

Out of competition but by no means less eagerly awaited, Britain's Stephen Frears will debut “Victoria & Abdul”, about Queen Victoria's unlikely friendship with a young Indian clerk, starring Judi Dench, Ali Fazal and Eddie Izzard.

“Exorcist” director William Friedkin delves into the story of a real-life exorcism with his documentary “The Devil and the Father Amorth” while Netflix reveals its first Italian original series “Suburra”, about gangsters and politicians in Rome.

Last but not least, US greats Robert Redford and Jane Fonda will be celebrated with Golden Lion lifetime achievement awards.

By Ella Ide


French abortion film wins female-focused Venice Film Festival

A timely film about illegal abortions in 1960s France won the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion on Saturday, capping a festival featuring numerous female-focused themes.

French abortion film wins female-focused Venice Film Festival
French director Audrey Diwan poses with the Golden Lion for Best Film she received for "L'Evenement" (Happening) at the 78th Venice Film Festival. Photo: Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Audrey Diwan’s “Happening” arrives just as the abortion debate is raging again after new restrictions in Texas, and with the ‘Me Too’ movement starting to make its mark in the film industry.

“I did this movie with anger, with desire, with my belly, my guts, my heart and my head,” said Diwan, accepting the top prize for her delicately rendered, yet gut-punching drama.

In a strong night for women filmmakers, best director went to iconic New Zealand auteur Jane Campion for her emotionally complex Western “The Power of the Dog”, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

And the best screenplay award went to Maggie Gyllenhaal for her directorial debut “The Lost Daughter”, an unflinching look at the difficulties of balancing career and motherhood starring British Oscar-winner Olivia Colman.

It was a strong finish for the glitzy festival on Venice’s beachfront Lido, which roared back to life this year after a low-key event in 2020 due to the pandemic, with stars back in force and a strong line-up of international films.

The second-place Silver Lion went to beloved Italian director Paolo Sorrentino for his strikingly personal “The Hand of God” about his youth in the gritty southern city of Naples, which also earned the newcomer award for young star Filippo Scotti.

But it was hard to ignore the gender theme across many films.

The festival closed with “The Last Duel”, playing out of competition, a medieval jousting drama starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck that went heavy on its message of historical injustice towards women.

“I think any reasonable humane, empathetic, conscionable person would have to be a feminist,” Affleck told AFP in an interview.

Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho”, meanwhile, turned the misogyny of Swinging Sixties London into a slasher horror flick.

One woman who seems destined to grab the headlines in the coming months is Kristen Stewart, who wowed critics with her turn as Princess Diana in “Spencer”.

But it was Spanish megastar Penelope Cruz who took home the best actress award in Venice for her latest collaboration with veteran auteur Pedro Almodovar.

“Parallel Mothers” is a surprisingly political turn for the flamboyant filmmaker, exploring the trauma of the 1930s Spanish civil war alongside the tale of two mothers sharing a maternity ward.

Cruz had a busy festival, also starring alongside Antonio Banderas as egomaniacal filmmakers in “Official Competition”, which mercilessly ripped into their own profession.

The best actor award was less expected, going to Philippines star John Arcilla for crime thriller “On the Job: The Missing 8”.

The Golden Lion was selected by a jury led by “Parasite” director Bong Joon-Ho and presented at the Saturday night closing ceremony.

Success at Venice has become a key launchpad for Academy Award campaigns in recent years.

The last four winners — “Nomadland”, “Joker”, “Roma” and “The Shape of Water” — have all gone on to Oscar success.

The glamour was certainly back this year, with a dazzling Hollywood guest list capped by the appearance of Affleck with his old/new girlfriend Jennifer Lopez to the delight of gossip mags everywhere.

Pandemic precautions including mandatory masks, vaccine passes and 50-percent capacity in the cinemas,, continued to dull some of the shine at this year’s festival.

Timothee Chalamet — in town to promote mega-blockbuster “Dune” – had to leap up the new Covid-security wall separating the public from the red carpet to give his adoring teen fans a bit of face time.

But with “Dune” bringing an army of stars to the Lido island — including Zendaya, Oscar Isaac and Javier Bardem — it seemed to confirm that the festival circuit was back on glitzy form.