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A masked photocall for The World to Come at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. Left to right: actor Katherine Waterston, director Mona Fastvold, actor Vanessa Kirby, producer Christine Vachon and actor Christopher Abbott

“36 degrees. Perfetto! The most beautiful temperature of them all!”

The Venice museum guard had just fired a thermometer gun at my head and was now waggling his eyebrows at me over his pale pink mask. In that moment, just prior to the start of the 77th Venice Film Festival – to which I’d arrived early for fear that the longer I left it the more likely I’d somehow be refused entry – it occurred to me that maybe it was going to be okay? If Italians were finding, in the Covid-19 restrictions, new ways to flirt, maybe normality of a sort was within reach.

As it turned out – and with the eternal asterisk that data on the number of new infections potentially incubated at the festival is not yet available (my own temperature is still perfetto; thanks for asking) – Venice 2020 was not okay. It was wonderful.

This was my seventh consecutive Venice. But it might as well have been the first film festival held since the 1879 invention of the zoopraxiscope, so aware were we all of its unprecedented nature, so existentially spooked by the certainty that, in an age of a rampant airborne disease and its widespread socio-political mismanagement, we were no longer allowed to have nice things.

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The competition jury at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. Left to right: jury president Cate Blanchett, Nicola Lagioia, Veronika Franz, Christian Petzold, Ludivine Sagnier, Matt Dillon and Joanna Hogg

And it was certainly true that Venice, of all the majors, seemed an unlikely revival point for the physical film festival ecosystem. In recent years its profile has rocketed upward, especially in international (read: Hollywood) terms. It’s been the proving ground for a host of films that have gone on to major (read: Oscar) success: Gravity; Roma; The Shape of Water; Spotlight; La La Land; Birdman; Arrival; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; The Favourite; and last year’s top prize-winner Joker all went on from the Lido to score Best Picture nominations. The question was whether Venice’s identity had become so closely enmeshed with A-list Hollywood glamour that the injunction against travel from the US and many other areas of the world would create a hobbled, hamstrung version of the festival, a mewling grey kitten compared to the roaring golden lion of years past.

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Hilal Baydarov’s In Between Dying (Səpələnmiş ölümlər arasında)

In reality, especially for attendees covering the films and not the press conference/interview circuit, the lower profile gave the official selection a charm and a potential for discovery that recent editions had arguably lost. It’s hard to see a film like Azerbaijani road-movie fable In Between Dying gaining a competition berth any other year, but simply by being there (and also being very good) it expanded the scope of the lineup.

And given that Venice has traditionally struggled with its representation of women, the fact that this year there were eight women directors in competition should not go unmentioned, with – at the very least – warm critical receptions accorded the films from Mona Fastvold (The World to Come, USA), Jasmila Žbanić (Quo Vadis, Aida?, Bosnia-Herzegovina et al), Emma Dante (The Macauluso Sisters, Italy), Malgorzata Szumowka (Never Gonna Snow Again, Poland/Germany) and of course Golden Lion winner Chloe Zhao. Her Nomadland proved yet another unifying element in a gratifyingly harmonious Venice, seeming to speak directly to the conversations so many of were suddenly having, even with relative strangers, about distance and isolation, and about how admitting to loneliness and acknowledging the loneliness of others is loneliness’s only cure.

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Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland won the 2020 Golden Lion for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival

As for the everyday: masks were mandatory, not only throughout the scrupulously socially distanced screenings but everywhere within the network of checkpoints that seal off the festival complex from the rest of the already naturally sealed-off island. And mask-wearing was rigorously enforced, with ushers loudly insisting even on the adjustment of masks that were being worn beneath the nose, which is such a personal bugbear that I would have hugged them for it if that wouldn’t completely defeat the purpose. Hand sanitiser stations were everywhere, and always refilled. Temperature checks were performed at every entry checkpoint.

And in the most heavenly, please-retain development, contact tracing regulations meant assigned seating at press screenings. This involved lot of very early mornings to ensure I got row 14 seat 5 in the Darsena for the 8.15am film three days later. But what compensation! No more queuing; no more manspreading, sandwich-munching knee-jigglers invading your space; and none of that irritating practise of someone bagsing a bunch of seats so all their friends could sit together like high-schoolers at lunch.

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A physically distanced screening at the Sala Darsena
© La Biennale di Venezia

There were noticeably fewer attendees. But still, while on Day One the refrain, heard in a variety of European languages, was “Oh it’s you! I didn’t recognise you with your mask on!” followed by a volley of awkward elbow bumps or mutually embarrassed bowing, by about Day Four we were all using that same justification to avoid people. There may have been less press in Venice, but there was still enough that everyone had a couple of nemeses walking around to spice things up.

But the greatest difference was simply a factor of the collective mood. Being as I am one, I can say with affection that film critics are by and large a pretty entitled bunch, prone to voluble complaint at even the smallest inconvenience in the commission of what is the literal best job in the world. But no one complained in Venice this year, even that time a film started late, even when the booking system crashed, even when we all realised we’d been guilty of not cancelling tickets because we’d never been told how to (and also, fair play for de-credentialing that one guy who booked 48 screenings and showed up to six).

We when we got together over an Aperol spritz and spoke of such things it was always with amusement, rather than annoyance, and usually qualified with “…but otherwise they’re doing an amazing job”. I have never in my film critic life experienced such positivity. Even far-off editors were gratefully name-checked for their understanding with regard to deadlines and embargoes: we were all so considerate of one another. The films, the people, the lifting spirits and the downed spritzes: Venice was the best of times amid the worst of times. It made us those of us fortunate enough to be there a little softer of edge, a little broader of perspective and a little calmer of soul, and for that, given that our beatific smiles are hidden by our masks, let me say out loud, and write in print, a deep and fervent grazie.

Originally published: 15 September 2020