What’s So Special About the Venice Film Festival

What’s So Special About the Venice Film Festival

My favorite film festival? All of them. Film journalism isn’t always cushy, because it requires you to spend a lot of time thinking about Michael Bay’s “Transformers” franchise. But jetting off to an exotic place to gorge on a feast of big-screen delicacies is never anything to complain about.

As delightful as film festivals are in general, though, the one in Venice, which runs from Wednesday to Sept. 8, is special for many reasons, not all of which are related to pizza, prosecco and ice cream. Those reasons apply even if you’re not there with a press pass. Here are a few of them.

Location, location

It’s by the beach. Think of Venice and you think of a fairy-tale city of glittering canals, Renaissance cathedrals, and shops selling little souvenir masks. But the Venice International Film Festival is actually tucked away on the Lido, a long thin island that is a short vaporetto ride across the lagoon from the Serenissima’s tourist-clogged center.

The beach there is dismissed by the guidebooks and studded with huts owned by hotels, but having a quick al fresco swim between screenings is a treat you don’t get at Sundance.

Low stress

It’s relaxed. Even though the festival is one of the most important and glamorous fixtures on the cinema calendar, not to mention the oldest film festival in the world, it can feel like a well-kept secret. You get the impression that most people in Venice don’t know it’s happening.

And even on the Lido, Italian holidaymakers are content to stretch out on the beach without bothering to stroll up the street to the Palazzo del Cinema, the event’s main headquarters. The atmosphere is surprisingly laid back, and it’s definitely less frantic than that of Cannes, where everyone within a 10-mile radius seems to have a movie to buy or sell.

Celebrity sightings

It’s easy to see someone famous. At certain festivals, crowds of autograph-hunters fill every square millimeter of the streets before each premiere, desperate to glimpse a Hollywood A-lister on the other side of the metal barriers. But most star-spotters don’t venture as far as the Lido, so there’s a lot more room. If you walk past the Palazzo at the right moment, you might well find yourself looking at Emma Stone.

And sometimes you don’t even need to do that. Last year, I was trying to choose between flavors in a gelato shop when I noticed that Susan Sarandon was next to me, struggling with the same thing.

Screen time

It’s easy to see the films. A couple of years ago, I went to a Venice press screening of a Hollywood drama set in an American city. During the opening helicopter shot of the Australian outback, I told myself that the director was taking an unusual approach to the subject matter, but I soon had to accept that there was a simpler explanation. I was watching the wrong film.

I’d been commissioned to review the Hollywood drama, so I had to annoy everyone in my row by climbing over them, stumbling through the darkness to the exit, and rushing to another auditorium. Strangely enough, I wasn’t alone: Several other journalists had made the same mistake. But I managed to beat them all in the incompetence stakes.

In the second auditorium, I heard German dialogue and realized that, yes, this was the wrong film, too. I finally burst into the correct venue, third time lucky, and slumped sweatily into an empty seat — and all I’d missed was the first five minutes of the film.

I can’t think of any other festival where I would have gotten away with such a mistake, but Venice has a cluster of state-of-the-art, purpose-built cinemas, and it screens most of its films three or four times. The result is that you don’t have to wait in line for hours or risk losing your one and only opportunity to see a masterpiece. Pop in just before (or just after) a film starts, and you should be O.K.

The festival is equally welcoming to cinephiles who don’t happen to be in the media or the industry. There are tickets for sale online and at the booths in front of the Palazzo, so everyone has a chance to catch the latest offering from Luca Guadagnino or the Coen brothers.

Arts scene

It’s not the only cultural extravaganza in town. In fact, the Venice Film Festival is just one component of La Biennale di Venezia, a celebration of the arts that has been running since 1895.

For its first few decades, the Biennale was a painting and sculpture expo that was held on odd-numbered years — hence the name. Now, it incorporates music, dance and theater as well as cinema, and the biannual visual art strand alternates with one devoted to contemporary architecture. (Since 2018 is even-numbered, it’s architecture’s turn this year.)

Of course, none of the Biennale’s exhibits can match the art and architecture of Venice itself, but it’s still a privilege to wander around the large-scale installations in the Giardini pavilions and the massive old shipyards of the Arsenale. If you have film festival accreditation, you can get into these for free.

But even if you don’t, it’s worth spending a couple of hours in the heart of Venice, and cleansing the palate with another kind of creativity, before heading back to the film banquet on the Lido.

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