Lady Gaga, others to head to Venice Film Festival

Justin Chang
Los Angeles Times

The Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica della Biennale di Venezia, also known as the Venice International Film Festival, is the oldest event of its kind in the world and still one of the most important. Held every fall on the Lido, a narrow island off the coast of one of Italy’s most beautiful and historic cities, it has long been a magnet for hype and glamour, art and cinephilia, Hollywood stars and international auteurs.

Some editions of the festival have been more lustrous than others, but this year’s prospects look especially enticing. In its 75th year, the festival will host the world premieres of everything from “First Man,” Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to “La La Land,” to Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, “A Star Is Born” (that star being pop-music icon Lady Gaga).

The main competition slate includes new works by “Call Me by Your Name” director Luca Guadagnino (a remake of “Suspiria” for Amazon), Alfonso Cuaron (the semi-autobiographical “Roma”) and, in the biggest surprise, Joel and Ethan Coen. The brothers’ latest, the western “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” began life as a limited anthology series, but has now been reconceived as a feature film (running 132 minutes, according to the festival’s website) and will receive a U.S. theatrical release later this year.

“Roma” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” hail from Netflix, as does another competition entry, “22 July,” Paul Greengrass’ dramatic reconstruction of the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway. In fact, marking a stark contrast with this year’s Cannes film festival, Venice has welcomed six Netflix titles into its lineup with open arms.

Last year’s event — like this one, under the artistic direction of Alberto Barbera — furthered Venice’s reputation as an awards-season incubator by hosting the world premieres of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “The Shape of Water.” The latter title ended up winning the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion, en route to Oscar glory.

Guillermo del Toro, the director of “The Shape of Water,” will be back in Venice as president of the main competition jury. He will thus have the chance to help anoint a new awards-season Goliath from the titles unveiled by the festival Wednesday morning.

Among the competition entries, anticipation is running high for “The Favourite,” an 18th-century British costume drama from the gifted Greek satirist Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”), and Cuaron’s family drama “Roma.” (He was last in Venice with 2013’s “Gravity,” for which he won the directing Oscar.)

As already announced last week, Chazelle’s space-race drama “First Man,” starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, officially opens the festival in competition on Aug. 29. (Chazelle also kicked off the festival two years ago, with “La La Land” — and went on to win the directing Oscar.)

Other touted contenders for the Golden Lion include “The Sisters Brothers,” a comic western starring John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix, and directed by France’s Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet”), and “Suspiria,” a grisly remake of Dario Argento’s horror classic from Italian filmmaker Guadagnino.

Also competing are “Peterloo,” an epic re-creation of a bloody 1819 massacre from British director Mike Leigh, who won the Golden Lion in 2004 for “Vera Drake”; Olivier Assayas’ “Non-Fiction,” a Juliette Binoche-starring drama set in the Paris publishing world; and “Sunset,” a pre-World War I drama from the Oscar-winning Hungarian filmmaker Laszlo Nemes (“Son of Saul”).

One of the festival’s most hotly anticipated titles isn’t even playing in the competition: Cooper’s “A Star Is Born,” the latest iteration of that well-worn Hollywood touchstone, casts the first-time filmmaker opposite six-time Grammy winner and one-time Oscar nominee Lady Gaga. Also playing out of competition: the Mel Gibson-Vince Vaughn cop thriller “Dragged Across Concrete,” from the rising grindhouse auteur S. Craig Zahler, whose “Brawl in Cell Block 99” memorably enlivened Venice last year.

Despite its established role in the awards-season ecosystem — and more importantly, the consistently high quality of its program — Venice typically remains one of the calmer, more manageable destinations on the festival calendar. For professional festivalgoers it can often seem like Cannes minus the madness, an opportunity to experience some of world cinema’s best and brightest without having to push your way through lines and crowds.

This is partly because relatively few North American journalists make the trip to the Lido each year, preferring instead to attend the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, which begin shortly after Venice and will play many of the same titles. To give you some sense of the tight scheduling and logistical madness involved: After screening in Venice, “A Star Is Born,” “The Sisters Brothers,” “Non-Fiction” and “Sunset” will go on to Toronto, while “First Man” and “Roma” will play Telluride and Toronto, with nary a break in between.

As a result, although well-attended and covered by the European press, Venice is an undersung gem of the festival calendar. Yet some momentum appears to have shifted in its favor. As usual, the festival will get a number of titles (among them “Non-Fiction,” “Sunset” and “Peterloo”) that either were not ready in time for Cannes (which is held in May) or were rejected by Cannes outright.

Notably, however, a number of films, including “The Sisters Brothers” and “Suspiria,” are known to have bypassed Cannes altogether in favor of a more strategic Venice berth, likely because the motion picture academy and other awards-giving bodies increasingly favor films that premiere in the fall or later.

Cannes, much criticized for this apparent loss in star power and auteur prestige, was hoping to premiere at least two Netflix titles, “Roma” and “The Other Side of the Wind,” a long-gestating, painstakingly restored version of a project Orson Welles shot in the 1970s. But Cannes programmers alienated Netflix by banning the firm’s titles from competition, in accordance with the demands of French exhibitors who feel threatened by the ever-growing streaming market.

Venice has no such restrictions against Netflix fare, and indeed put the streaming service on the festival map by premiering Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation” in competition in 2015. In addition to slotting “Roma,” “22 July” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” in competition, the festival also will premiere “The Other Side of the Wind,” as a special event.

Further representing the streaming service, Morgan Neville’s Welles documentary “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” also is screening as a special event. And Italian director Alessio Cremonini’s “Sulla mia Pelle” (“On my Skin”) will open the Horizons sidebar.

By giving Netflix perhaps its most robust, high-profile festival showing, Venice is sending a hard-to-miss statement: Unlike the younger but more hidebound Cannes, this festival will break with tradition and embrace a new cinematic reality of less rigidly defined distribution methods. But if Venice is stealing a bit more of Cannes’ thunder than usual, it also stands to reap some of the same scrutiny — and criticism — that Cannes has weathered over the years.

Only one of this year’s 19 competition titles is directed by a woman: “The Nightingale,” a revenge thriller from Australian director Jennifer Kent, who scored a major critical success years ago with “The Babadook.” Female filmmakers are better represented outside the competition, including Mary Harron, who will bring her Charles Manson drama “Charlie Says,” and the Italian French filmmaker Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, who will premiere her family drama “The Summer House.”

Latin American cinema will have a decent competition showing with “Roma”; “Nuestro Tiempo,” from Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas; and “Acusada,” from Argentina’s Gonzalo Tobal, though only one competition title, Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s samurai thriller “Zan (Killing),” is directed by an Asian filmmaker.

Outside the competition, however, the festival will feature new Asian-directed titles such as “Shadow,” from China’s Zhang Yimou; “Your Face,” a nonfiction work from Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang; and “Graves Without a Name,” a documentary portrait of life under the Khmer Rouge from Cambodia’s Rithy Panh (“The Missing Picture”).

Other potentially noteworthy nonfiction titles include Errol Morris’ “American Dharma,” a talk with ex-White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon; and “Monrovia, Indiana,” a portrait of a farming community from Frederick Wiseman.