Three years ago, in August 2020, at the height of the COVID pandemic in Europe, as we were all getting used to words like "social distancing" or the "R" reproduction rate, the Venice Film Festival defied the odds and held an in-person celebration of cinema.
It was an odd affair — temperature checks outside hotels, masking in the screening rooms — but it was a sign of hope for film fans. As movie houses were being shut and forecasters were predicting the death of the theatrical experience, the world's oldest film festival was still going, still showing the best new cinema in the world in dark rooms filled with (socially distanced) strangers collectively experiencing what the French call the seventh art.
COVID guidelines are gone for this year's Biennale, which runs from August 30 to September 9. The masks are off, there'll be no temperature checks and audiences in the Lido theaters will be packed in cheek by jowl.
Hollywood strikes strip red carpet of its glamour
The strikes mean many of the biggest films in Venice this year will arrive at the festival with no stars to walk the red carpet. That includes Netflix's "Maestro," a biopic about the renowned Jewish conductor Leonard Bernstein directed by Bradley Cooper, his sophomore feature after the blockbuster success of "A Star is Born," which premiered in Venice in 2018; David Fincher's new thriller "The Killer," starring Michael Fassbender and Tilda Swinton; and "Poor Things," the latest piece of period weirdness from Yorgos Lanthimos ("The Favourite"), starring Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo.
The unions — SAG-AFTRA for actors, WGA for writers — have forbidden their members from promoting any so-called "struck productions," meaning movies made by a major studio or streaming service, the very people with which the guilds are fighting over a new contract. (Netflix produced "Maestro" and "The Killer"; Searchlight, a division of Disney, made "Poor Things").
"Challengers," a menage-a-trois drama starring Zendaya from "Call Me By Your Name" director Luca Guadagnino, which was set to open Venice this year, pulled out due to the strike. Now, the movie won't come until sometime next year.
SAG-AFTRA has been handing out interim waivers to some independent productions to let them do promotion at Venice and attract attention from buyers to pick up their films.
So Adam Driver, who plays legendary Italian carmaker Enzo Ferrari in "Ferrari," a new biopic by "Heat" director Michael Mann, is expected on the Lido. As are Priscilla Presley and Sophia Coppola, who will fly in for Coppola's drama "Priscilla," which tells the story of Elvis' teenage bride from her perspective. Cailee Spaeny plays Priscilla, while Jacob Elordi portrays Elvis.
And there will be plenty of European stars punting around Venice. Mads Mikkelsen, last seen as a Nazi annoying Harrison Ford in "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny," returns to his native Denmark for "The Promised Land," a period romance from "A Royal Affair" director Nikolaj Arcel about the man who tried to tame the barren Danish heathland.
Caleb Landry Jones will be on hand for "DogMan," a buzzy film billed as a potential comeback movie for out-of-favor director Luc Besson. Much of the cast of Roman Polanski's out-of-competition film, "The Palace," including German star Oliver Masucci ("Dark"), Britain's John Cleese and French icon Fanny Ardant, are expected. However, the director, still a fugitive from US justice over a decades-old sexual assault case, is not.
Venice's decision to screen the new Polanski movie, alongside the latest from Woody Allen, the French-language "Coup de Chance," has been predictably controversial. Both men are triggering figures for many in the #MeToo movement and beyond. Expect calls for boycotts and even red-carpet protests when their films hit the Lido.
Art house gems
Looking past the strikes and the scandals, this year's Venice lineup could turn up some real gems. Italian art house maestro Matteo Garrone ("Gomorrah") is in competition with "Io Capitano," a refugee drama that follows the journey of two young men from Dakar to Europe.
Polish directors Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert return to Venice with "Woman Of," a transgender love story sure to be a hot-button topic back home, where LGBTQ rights are under attack from the country's far-right government.
And "Selma" filmmaker Ava DuVernay makes history as the first Black female director in the Venice competition with "Origin," a drama about the origins of the systems of racism and hierarchy that has shaped America.
There are some mainstream movies in the mix — Richard Linklater's action comedy "Hit Man," Liam Neeson-starrer "In the Land of Saints and Sinners" — and art house purists will be rushing to see "Evil Does Not Exist," the latest from "Drive My Car" director Ryusuke Hamaguchi; Wes Anderson's new short, "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar," based on a collection of stories from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" author Roald Dahl; and "Aggro Dr1ft," an experimental, video-game-inspired film from "Spring Breakers" director Harmony Korine, featuring rap star Travis Scott and shot entirely in infrared.
Film fans will also say goodbye to the late, great William Friedkin, who died last month and whose final film, "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial," premieres in Venice this year.
At 80, the Biennale still looks spry, and while the red carpet star power might be a few watts dimmer this year, Venice offers a promising reminder that great movies are still getting made. When the strikes end, hopefully soon, film fans will be spoiled for choice.
Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier