Venice Film Festival Artistic Director Alberto Barbera is in an enviable position. The lineup he unveiled today includes a host of titles that will likely figure in the awards-season conversation for months to come. That’s driven home by the fact that Venice has, since Barbera’s return to the fest in 2012, been a prescient tastemaker and is increasingly courted by the studios. This year, he tells me, the selection committee was forced to turn down some films as Venice has grown to become the global launchpad for awards season.
“We saw so many films this year,” a hoarse-voiced Barbera said as he boarded a train out of Rome this evening. “Most are really excellent and could have been invited in the past without any problem, but this year we were forced to say no to some excellent movies because of a lack of space.” Films proposed but not selected, he said, were “not a matter of quality.” The festival “had to choose between excellent films and we took our risk.”
As Venice, which has recently launched Best Picture Oscar winners Birdman, Spotlight and The Shape Of Water, is seen as the primordial showcase for awards season, Barbera says it’s a “happy” place to be, but also “difficult in the sense of making a choice. When you have excellent movies, it’s difficult to say ‘I’m sorry, you should skip Venice this year because we have too many movies.'”
The affable Italian is nevertheless realistic. “It doesn’t happen so often that there are so many good films at same time of the year. I’m not sure next year will be the same,” he tells me.
So, now that the Lido is a primo destination, was there anything that got away? Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum, which stars Matthew McConaughey in what Barbera said was an Oscar-worthy performance, just wasn’t ready. “I regret it, I like it a lot… (We have) a close relationship with Harmony.” Despite much hand-wringing spilled elsewhere today, Barbera tells me Venice knew for a while the movie wouldn’t make it, but he allowed, “It’s too bad, the film is wonderful.”
Ultimately, while Barbera said last year he was about 97% content with the lineup, he laughs that this year could be 98%. Venice didn’t screen Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight follow-up If Beale Street Could Talk. Barbera chalks that up to Jenkins having a strong relationship with both Telluride and Toronto.
Otherwise, Barbera says, “We saw every film that was ready. We could make our decision to invite something. We are quite happy with the result.”
The festival did screen Felix van Groenigren’s Beautfiul Boy, which Barbera qualified as “excellent.” That one is a Toronto world premiere, but for Barbera, “we can’t take everything.”
Amazon has a couple of titles this year in the Official Selection, as does Netflix — Barbera has been one of the most forward-thinking festival heads in recent years, notably including Beasts Of No Nation in 2015. There are six Netflix movies in the mix and Barbera allows that Venice benefited from the recent kerfuffle between the streaming service and Cannes. Netflix, after controversially bowing two movies in 2017, pulled its titles from consideration last May owing to the arcane windows issues that dog France. Barbera is very good friends with Cannes’ Thierry Frémaux, but he allows, “Of course we benefit from all the polemic between Cannes and Netflix creating a problem. We finally succeeded to get a couple films that could have been in Cannes before. It’s a particular situation in France, the streaming window doesn’t make any sense in my point of view. I hope Cannes will be able to find a solution.”
There is another unique situation this year in a festival that Alejandro G. Inarritu once told me was being taken over by the “Mexican cartel.” Last year’s Golden Lion (and Best Picture Oscar) winner, Guillermo del Toro, is president of the jury this year. His pal Alfonso Cuaron has a movie in competition with Roma. How is that being squared?
Barbera says “We had a long discussion about this. I didn’t want to impose but we told him ROMA is a great movie and Cuaron deserves to be in competition. It would be unfair not to give ROMA the chance to be in competition in Venice and it was scary about the possible polemics and reaction from the press. We told (del Toro) we trust in your capacity to make a fair judgement. He’s not the only one in the jury. There are eight more people, respected filmmakers, talented actors.”