With Hollywood effectively turning the festival into its launchpad for the Oscars with new films by Damien Chazelle, the Coen brothers, Alfonso Cuaron and Lady Gaga's much-hyped screen debut, feminists have lashed the organisers for choosing only one film by a female director.
It is the second year in a row that Venice has featured just one film by a woman among the 21 vying for the Golden Lion top prize.
Festival director Alberto Barbera declared that he would “rather quit” than give in to pressure for a quota for women after the Cannes, Toronto and Locarno festivals pledged themselves to gender equality.
But his stance – as Venice bids to rival Cannes as the world's most important festival – was lambasted by an alliance of European women filmmakers.
“Sorry, but we don't buy this anymore,” said the European Women's Audiovisual Network in an open letter earlier this month. “When Alberto Barbera threatens to quit, he is perpetuating the notion that selecting films by female filmmakers involves lowering standards.”
Others blamed a streak of Italian “toxic masculinity” that saw actress and #MeToo campaigner Asia Argento pilloried in her homeland for accusing Harvey Weinstein of rape. Argento has since been accused of having sex with a minor while on a film shoot.
Barbera initially insisted that he chose the films “on the quality and not the sex of the director”, telling reporters that “if we impose quotas, I resign”.
But on Wednesday he seemed to soften his position considerably as the head of his jury, Oscar-winning Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, threw his weight behind the 50/50 by 2020 campaign launched by women stars and directors at Cannes.
“For me the goal is clear and has to remain 50/50 by 2020,” the director told reporters in Venice. “I think 50/50 by 2019 is better. It is not a matter of establishing a quota… [but] it is extremely important to call [under-representation] out. For many decades and centuries it had not been called out.”
Official Competion jury president Guillermo Del Toro. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP
Campaigners say Venice may now be about to sign up to the greater equality goals in line with other festivals, with Barbera already vowing greater transparency.
He was already under pressure for including a documentary by Bruce Weber, Nice Girls Don't Stay for Breakfast, despite claims of coercive sexual behaviour by the American fashion photographer made by 15 male models. Weber denies any wrongdoing.
Barbera also faced questions over his decision to invite disgraced Hollywood director James Toback to premiere his film The Private Life of a Modern Woman at Venice last year. Toback has been accused of sexual harassment and assault by nearly 400 women, including actresses Julianne Moore, Selma Blair and Rachel McAdams.
“I'm not in a position to judge, to decide if James Toback's behaviour was good or bad,” Barbera said. “I'm not a judge. I'm not a lawyer. I'm a festival director. I knew Mr Toback and I invited him,” he said of the director, who denies the allegations.
“We will see if the courts decide if the accusations are true, and if they're true he'll go to jail.”
Launchpad for Oscars
But even the row over women directors cannot take the shine off the way Barbera has turned around the world's oldest film festival.
A host of Oscar winners over the past five years have been premiered at Venice including Gravity, Birdman, Spotlight, La La Land and last year's best film, The Shape of Water.
Barbera has stolen some of Cannes' thunder and its stars, with his festival's timing making it a better launchpad for the American awards season.
Venice has also profited from Cannes' feud with streaming giant Netflix, scooping up all of its films which might normally have been shown at the world's biggest film festival.
Venice's staggering line-up this year includes new films by Oscar-winning Son of Saul director Hungarian Laszlo Nemes, Britain's Mike Leigh and Paul Greengrass, Chinese master Zhang Yimou, Emir Kusturica and two of France's biggest directors, Jacques Audiard and Olivier Assayas, who would usually show at Cannes.
The festival kicks off late Wednesday with First Man, with Chazelle teaming up with his La La Land star Ryan Gosling. The Canadian actor plays astronaut Neil Armstrong in the years leading up to 1969, when he became the first man to walk on the moon.
Australian Jennifer Kent is the solitary woman gunning for the Golden Lion with The Nightingale.
The last time a woman took Venice's top prize was 43 years ago, when German director Margarethe von Trotta won with Marianne and Juliane.
For those who can't attend or get tickets for the festival, Mymovies.it and Repubblica are live streaming 16 of the films in the programme for a one-off subscription fee of €17.90 from August 30th. The films will be available for five days after the first live streaming.