Venice Film Festival Opens With a Subdued Ceremony and a WWII Drama

The 80th edition of the Venice Film Festival, the world’s oldest cinema event, began on Wednesday night with a subdued opening ceremony and the world premiere of Edoardo De Angelis’ Italian World War II submarine drama Comandante.

Comandante Replaces Challengers as the Opening Film

Comandante, which is running in competition for the Golden Lion, tells the true story of Salvatore Todaro, a submarine captain under Italy’s fascist government who chose to rescue 26 Belgian merchant seamen instead of abandoning them after he sank their ship, the Cappellini, in the Atlantic in 1940. Pierfrancesco Favino plays Todaro, and the Italian star was in attendance at the opening night.

Venice Film Festival Opens With a Subdued Ceremony and a WWII Drama
Venice Film Festival Opens With a Subdued Ceremony and a WWII Drama

Comandante took over the slot vacated by Luca Guadagnino’s tennis drama Challengers, which was scheduled to open Venice pre-strike, but backed out of the spot amid the SAG-AFTRA strike. The strike, which began on August 23, has affected several Hollywood productions and promotional activities, forcing some films to withdraw or postpone their participation in Venice and other festivals.

Hollywood Strikes Cast a Pall Over the Fest

The Hollywood strikes cast a pall over the glitz and glamour that typically exemplify Venice. In an alternate universe, Zendaya would be breaking the Internet with her red carpet fashion and raves for her performance in Challengers, the movie that was supposed to open the 80th annual Venice Film Festival. But the SAG-AFTRA strike made it impossible for the tennis drama, which MGM pushed to a 2024 release date, to come to the Lido.

The lack of star power was strongly felt at Venice opening night. The crowds lined outside the Sala Grande Theatre was modest in size, and the biggest cheers went to Damien Chazelle, who is presiding over the Venice jury. Jane Campion, another jury member, waded into the crowds to sign autographs and take selfies. But it was a vast difference from years past when an appearance from Lady Gaga or Timothee Chalamet would shut down any foot traffic near the theater.

Hollywood’s labor issues have played a starring role at Venice. During the day’s first press conference, Chazelle and fellow juror Martin McDonagh expressed support for the ongoing writers’ and actors’ strikes in Hollywood, sporting a “Writers Guild on Strike” shirt and pin. Venice chief Alberto Barbera reiterated that despite promotional complications prompted by the strike there will be a smattering of U.S. star power on the Lido, with Adam Driver expected on hand to promote Ferrari, while Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi will be coming for Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, Caleb Landry Jones for Luc Besson’s Dogman, and Jessica Chastain will jet in for Mexican auteur Michel Franco’s Memory, which is screening toward the end of the festival.

Liliana Cavani Receives Lifetime Achievement Award

The highlight of the opening ceremony, hosted by Italian actor Caterina Murino – who is best known globally for playing Solange in James Bond movie Casino Royale – occurred when Charlotte Rampling handed the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement to revered Italian auteur Liliana Cavani. Rampling was the unforgettable protagonist of Caviani’s groundbreaking 1974 The Night Porter, in which she played a concentration camp survivor who discovers that her former torturer and lover, played by Dirk Bogarde, is working as a porter at a hotel in postwar Vienna.

“In a certain sense you could say that both Liliana Cavani and I have have been defined by Night Porter,” said Rampling. In an impassioned, beautifully delivered speech, Rampling went on to note that for Night Porter “Cavani had in mind the words of a woman, an Auschwitz survivor, who could never forgive her captors for making her survive her own dark side.”

Rampling noted that Cavani is the first woman to win a lifetime Golden Lion, prompting Cavani to note, “That’s not fair. There are many talented women in the industry, screenwriters and directors that deserve to be recognized. I hope I’m just the first of a long list.”

A highlight of the ceremony was a montage tribute to this year’s festival jury president, Damien Chazelle, including Venice debuts La La Land and First Man.

Comandante Lands Soft Standing Ovation

The film Comandante was received warmly by the audience, with a polite, though short, standing ovation as actor Pierfrancesco Favino — who plays naval officer Salvatore Todaro — took a bow. The film received mixed reviews from critics, who praised Favino’s performance but criticized De Angelis’ direction and script.

All in all a respectable, but downbeat, start to Venice 2023.

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