EXCLUSIVE: Venice Film Festival director Alberto Barbera has had plenty to ponder in the festival’s first week. There have been strong receptions for flagship movies such as Joker, Marriage Story and Ad Astra, on-going debate over the scarcity of women in Competition and drama when jury president Lucrecia Martel had to clarify comments she made about Roman Polanski at the opening presser.
We sat down with Barbera at the festival’s halfway point to discuss potential Oscar candidates (the festival has launched three of the past five Best Picture winners), the jury prospects for Polanski’s movie An Officer And A Spy, a female-directed film he wished was here and his own future at the festival.
Deadline: Good morning. How are you feeling about the festival so far?
Alberto Barbera: I feel very good so far. It seems most of the movies have had good responses.
Joker was very strong. It was potentially a risk for Warner Bros to bring it to a festival. But the response has been excellent…
I think they made a good choice. The right choice. The film deserves the reception it is getting. It goes beyond the boundaries of the genre. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is outstanding and Todd Phillips did a great job.
What are its Academy prospects, do you think? Even at this early stage, I expect it to be in the running in at least three-four categories, including Best Picture…
They’re very good. Absolutely, it will be in the running.
There are potential points of contention, however. The messaging on mental health, and the issue of copy-cat killings, for example. Do you foresee any issues there?
I don’t think so. The way it deals with those elements is intelligent. It’s not a simplistic view. Social factors, and other external factors, combine with the character’s state of mind to make it a complex picture. That’s a strength of the film. It’s a strong, unexpected and original film. Even if there are references to The King Of Comedy and Taxi Driver, it’s a very original movie.
I saw Joker and then Nate Parker’s film back-to-back. Combined, it was a dark view of America today…
Joker is a dark movie. It’s a dark vision of the contemporary world. Nate’s movie is provocative. It’s a polemic.
Other than Joker, which movies could feature at the Oscars?
It’s hard to say. It’s so unpredictable and there’s a long way to go. Joker for sure. Noah Baumbach’s film Marriage Story had a very warm response from the press. I think it’s his best film so far. The performances are pretty amazing and the script is excellent. This could play a role.
The festival started in unusual fashion, with jury head Lucrecia Martel clarifying remarks she made at the opening press conference that she wouldn’t “congratulate” Competition entrant Roman Polanski and that his participation in the festival made her “uncomfortable”. How does the land lie now?
We expected polemic over Polanski, but not necessarily the film. Lucrecia’s speech at the press conference was misunderstood. She made a mistake by answering multiple questions in great detail. There were subtleties to her answers but the jury press conference works better with clearer, plainer answers. She was also speaking Spanish so the translation didn’t help with conveying what she was trying to say. She didn’t mean to say what the press reported. I spent the first few days of the festival with Lucrecia. We discussed Polanski and from the beginning she told me she liked the movie. She told me that behind the film she could see a man who has humanity and sensibility. She told me she didn’t have anything against him or his film. She didn’t even know that Polanski wasn’t here. She thought he was.
But she clearly has some hesitation?
She does. Of course. She told me how much she is invested in movements in Argentina around harassment and violence towards women, for example.
Can the film get a fair assessment from the jury?
Yes, it can. After the initial issue, the movie was seen and was generally well-received, apart from a few U.S. outlets. The press from Europe was positive. It’s a good movie and people moved on from the polemic. I hear the jury likes the movie. I don’t think there will be prejudice.
When Lucrecia Martel took the job as jury president did she know Roman Polanski’s film was in?
Yes. It wasn’t a problem.
There was some speculation that Jennifer Kent may have dropped out of the jury last week because of Polanski being in the lineup…
Not at all. Jennifer had a family issue. It wasn’t a problem for her either that Roman’s movie was in the lineup.
Is it becoming bruising for you personally, and the festival, for there to be so many conversations about gender imbalance and directors with chequered pasts?
It’s not the nicest situation. But I know this is part of the contemporary landscape. I don’t like how far the conversation goes sometimes but I totally agree the gender gap is a big problem. It’s unfair. I’m sure this situation will change with time. The talent is there. But the focus has been on the festivals. It seems nobody cares about this problem until we reach the festivals. We receive around 2,000 films, only around 23% are made by women. This is similar to Cannes and the Berlinale. We have around 25 films by women among the 65 movies or so getting their world premieres. We have only two women in Competition but it could have been more. I lost Kelly Reichardt’s movie The Cow at the last minute because of a marketing decision. It’s an excellent film. One of her best…
Yes, there was some surprise the movie wasn’t here or at Toronto…
A24 decided not to bring the film here because it doesn’t have international distribution. It was their choice…But if I had three films in Competition would that radically change the situation? No. The situation in the film industry is the same it was ten years ago. We need to fight for change. We need to fill in a gap. But don’t ask me to be the only one to solve the problem. Festivals are towards the end of the chain in a film’s life.
A number of people I speak to in the industry are worried about the current quality of movies and the future health of cinema. There is flux and consolidation in the U.S. business and globally, TV goes from strength to strength — you have two series at the festival for the first time — and there are myriad distractions for our attention today. What are the prospects for film and cinema?
I’m very optimistic. I think the landscape is changing rapidly. Streamers will be stronger and stronger and within a few months we’ll have six or seven platforms. They need new content. There will be investment, partly in series but also in movies. They need content, including festival films…Look at Netflix. They’ve just made Martin Scorsese’s latest movie. They’re making the next David Fincher movie. Fincher has been making TV for a number of years…So there will be competition. There may be fewer theaters but the ones which survive will offer a better customer service. I can’t remember a moment in the last 20 years when the prospects were so good for film. I’m certain of that.
Can you mark our card for the festival’s second week?
The Assayas was very good, as was the Soderbergh. There will be a couple of surprises this week. The Czech film The Painted Bird is very strong, as is the Italian movie Martin Eden.
Your contract expires after next year’s edition. Would you like to continue?
This is what I do, what I know. If they ask me to stay, I will stay with pleasure. There will be a new president of the Biennale so he will decide.