Whilst Venice’s place as Queen of the Seas may be long lost, people still descend on the city every year to trade in something far more valuable than goods and commodities. That can only be an exchange of ideas – and in Venice, such an exchange must invariably be of the highest artistic merit. Enter the Venice Biennale – since 1895 the closest thing to a smorgasbord you’ll find south of the Alps, albeit not a smorgasbord of food, but of all things cultural.
Venice is of course no stranger to the arts or to festivals. Its famous Opera House La Fenice, has played a leading role in the development of opera. Each February, the Venice Carnival continues to draw revellers who want their fair share of the good life. But there is quite no cultural festival that can compare to the Venice Biennale.
The Venice Biennale takes place at the end of the summer season each year. In odd numbered years, it focuses on an Art Exhibition where countries exhibit artwork by a select artist in national pavilions; whilst in even numbered years, architects have their turn to demonstrate their ideas and projects in the Venice Biennale of Architecture.
Where the performing arts come together
But that’s not all, as performance art also features in the form of dance, music and theatrical performances of which there is much to go around. More popularly perhaps, is the Venice Film Festival which runs annually as part of the Biennale and has the distinguished honour of being the oldest film festival in the world. It began in 1932 as an exhibition of the cinematic arts.
Since its establishment in the late 19th century, cinema was used primarily as an artistic medium. It was not until the late 19th century and early 20th century that it began to develop as a means to showcase a narrative. That might explain then why cinema claimed its place as an accepted art medium at a frequent international art fair at a time when it was regarded as a lowly form of entertainment for the uneducated masses.
Nonetheless, the Venice Film Festival has gone on to become one of the indisputable film festivals of international importance, perhaps more so for art house cinema than for popular cinema, but definitely including the latter.
The Venice Film Festival under pressure
Since its humble beginnings only three years before the first full length colour motion picture – Becky Sharp – was made in 1935, the Venice Film Festival has grown to be an important marketplace for movies due for release over the traditional Hollywood awards season in winter.
Despite its stature and respectable reputation, the Film Festival has come under pressure, especially from the populist Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) which takes place at the same time. Hollywood studios have increasingly begun to skip the Venice Biennale in favour of the TIFF, which is held over the same period and is closer and more affordable. Venice faces challenges in part because of its most valuable feature – a shortage of land.
The Film Festival has traditionally been held on the Lido – a sand bank outside of Venice Main. In 2010, the Hotel Des Bains, which you might recognise from the film A Death in Venice closed to make way for renovated apartments, leaving a shortage of short-term accommodation. Being situated on the Lido, it was the darling of Hollywood glitterati attending the Film Festival. Furthermore, the cost of hosting media events n Venice is high, given the shortage of affordable available accommodation.
Coupled with the economic recession, much of Hollywood began opting instead to focus on the Toronto Film Festival, which is only about a 5 hours flight away from Los Angeles and much more affordable. Venice’s answer to the challenge has thus far demonstrated boldness or risk, depending on who you are.
Venice Strikes Back
The Festival’s new artistic director, Alberto Barbera, has responded to the controversy of prejudice at the Cannes International Film Festival, where, against a backdrop of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, sexism in France came under the spotlight even more when it was revealed that the 22 or so films in the running for the Cannes Palm d’Or Prize were all directed by men. The same year, the Venice Biennale selected 20 films directed by women, emphasising the important voices that female directors may bring to the big screen.
Not only that, but whereas the Toronto Film Festival becomes ever larger and more populist, the Venice Film Festival has chosen to show fewer productions, emphasising quality rather than quantity. Signor Barbera has come under some criticism for the decision, least of all because it draws fewer celebrities – and accordingly a smaller international media contingency – to the festival.
To address criticism of the cost of publicity and a lack of comfortable space, the construction of a new cinema complex is expected to be completed in 2015 after delays resulting from the discovery of asbestos. Once completed, it will likely make attendance and media coverage of the Film Festival more accessible.
The strategy is brave. Modernise without throwing the legacy of the Film Festival overboard. Keep the emphasis on the art of cinema, as it was when the Film Festival was established. Promote publicity through value and venues, rather than vapid hype. Fortunately, the Venice Biennale has a well established brand symbol that can do just that.
The pride of Venice has always been symbolised in the city’s symbol of a Golden Lion with wings. Movie audiences to whom the quality of cinema appeals will no doubt be drawn to productions awarded Venice’s Golden Lion award for Best Film in the future as they have been in the past. Likewise, the Silver Lion, awarded to the Best Director along with the Voldi Cup for the Best Actress and Actor respectively, will continue to be a symbol of quality for discerning cinema goers.
Whether the strategy will weather the storm remains to be seen, but Venice, being Venice and holding a Film Festival to coincide with a broader Biennale of the Arts, is likely to remain prominent in the cinematic arts. After all, the popularity of cinema has always been closely tied with romantic allure and glamour and if any place has plenty of both, that would be Venice.
When to go
If you’ve not been to Venice, the end of summer is definitely a better time to go than mid-summer. There is no shortage of things to appreciate, including the delicate, understated tastes of North Italian cuisine, influenced by the sea. But going for the Biennale offers you not only that extra excuse, but also that extra value you’ll not find going to any other Film or Arts Festival anywhere in the world.
The time to fly with Venice’s golden lion is towards the end of summer. The Venice Film Festival runs for 11 days at the end of August into September each year. Even if this year is not an option, it’s never too late to plan for next year’s event. You already know when and where it will be, so spread your wings and appreciate the finer things in life.
If you have already been to the Venice Biennale, what stories would you like to share about it?