EXCLUSIVE: Venice Film Festival chief Alberto Barbera is appreciated by many in the film and media industries not only for having cemented Venice as a must-attend blue-ribbon festival, but also for his candour.
As we do every year, Deadline sat down with Barbera at the festival’s mid-point to discuss a lineup that has already wowed and frustrated audiences and which is as rich in off-screen sub-plots as any I can remember.
We started out by discussing how the rhythm of the festival has changed over the years, both for media and for him and his team…
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DEADLINE: I know this is the crunch time for you. It’s the stage of the festival when those covering it and those organizing it are feeling the pinch of the late nights and heavy workload. The way we cover festivals has changed so much due to the proliferation of video, social media and the sheer content volume…
ALBERTO BARBERA: It’s the same for us. Watching movies for the selection has become a year-round proposition from morning until night and on weekends. I don’t know why, but before Covid filmmakers would send their films to certain festivals depending on when it was ready. Now, as soon as a filmmaker has a film ready they send it to all the festivals all over the world at the same time. In December, we started watching films that were also being submitted to Berlin, Cannes and other festivals. And the filmmakers and their teams want a response immediately. How can we invite a film in December? It’s getting more and more complicated. When I first did Venice in ’99 we had 900 submissions. We thought that was a lot at the time. This year, all in all, we’ve seen more than 4,000 films.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about some of these films. First of all, have you spoken to Bradley Cooper [Cooper did not attend Venice due to the SAG strike] about the strong reception for Maestro last night?
BARBERA: Yes, last night we exchanged some texts. He was extremely happy. He didn’t know about the reaction.
DEADLINE: He didn’t read any of the reviews?
BARBERA: He told me that he doesn’t read any reviews at all, not even the good ones. He doesn’t want anything to interfere with his process of finding and telling other stories.
DEADLINE: I know some actors and directors who feel that way and others who are sent the good reviews…Did you reach out to Emma Stone after the amazing response to Poor Things?
BARBERA: No, I didn’t.
DEADLINE: Poor Things was tremendous: an incredible level of filmmaking. It seems very likely that both Emma Stone and Carey Mulligan will be in contention for the Best Actress Oscar…
BARBERA: For sure.
DEADLINE: They’re very likely Best Picture contenders too…
BARBERA: Yes, I agree.
DEADLINE: I don’t recall a movie being as unanimously loved at a major festival as Poor Things; by critics, industry and the general public alike.
BARBERA: I agree. It’s very, very rare. I had no doubt when I saw the movie. I knew it was unique and special.
DEADLINE: Do you think the discussion over Bradley Cooper’s prosthetic nose could hurt Maestro’s chances of awards?
BARBERA: No, I really don’t. I think that has already started to go away.
DEADLINE: While Poor Things got perhaps the best response I’ve ever seen at a major festival, conversely, I don’t think I can recall a worse reaction than that to the Polanski. Did that reaction surprise you and has it made you doubt the selection?
BARBERA: I didn’t understand the level of negativity in the reviews. The film isn’t a great, great movie, otherwise it probably would have been in Competition. I told Roman before the festival that it was weak, but I don’t agree with the critics. The response seems personal and disrespectful towards him and the film. I know it’s not a perfect movie, I can see the weaknesses and where it doesn’t work, but it’s not as bad as the critics say. It comes across as mean.
DEADLINE: If you were aware the film was “weak”, could the slot not have gone to someone else? Some may say the slot could have gone to a female director, for example, of which there aren’t many.
BARBERA: I don’t regret the choice. We’ll see. I don’t think the film will be totally rescued from the bad reception but perhaps the worst reception for a movie in Venice that I can recall was for Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, which as we know, has become a cult movie. The film was bood by the Sala Grande, which is normally a nice crowd. Even if they don’t love something they will normally clap it. I don’t know why they disliked Under The Skin so much but it’s now considered to be a great British movie. Now, I’m not saying that will happen with the Polanski…
DEADLINE: Within the space of 24 hours we might have had the best reviewed Venice movie ever and the worst. Do you think that’s chance or might it hint to something about contemporary criticism in the age of social media? We’re only a few days into the fall festival season and I’ve already seen multiple movies being compared to The Godfather, for example. There isn’t much middle ground, it seems…
DEADLINE: Which movies do you think could delight (or horrify) people in the second week?
BARBERA: I think the Agnieszka Holland film is strong, the Stéphane Brizé film is very strong and the Polish film Woman Of…also could go well could play well.
DEADLINE: The movie Memory with Jessica Chastain is due to play late next week and Chastain is due to be here. Are you aware whether the film has an interim agreement from SAG-AFTRA? There seems to be some uncertainty [the festival had previously told press that Léa Seydoux would be here for The Beast but the actress didn’t attend the film’s red carpet or screening this afternoon]…
BARBERA: I’m not sure. Jessica has changed her mind a couple of times. Penelope Cruz and one or two others not coming gave her some pause, I think. The latest we have is that she is coming. We’re not sure but we hope she makes it.
DEADLINE: I know in Hollywood, during the strikes, there has been even more trepidation about actresses attending red carpets for movies with interim agreements because of the demands placed on women at media events and because of the level of misogyny that can arise on social media…
BARBERA: Yes, that makes sense. There is a lot of trepidation out of Hollywood about being on the red carpet due to the politics at the moment.
DEADLINE: You have some lightning rod filmmakers in the selection this year: namely Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and Luc Besson. A few years ago, jury head Lucretia Martel said she wouldn’t clap or attend the premiere of Polanksi’s movie An Officer And A Spy. I wondered whether there were any misgivings you were aware of from jury members this year — Laura Poitras and Jane Campion are among the female jury members — about the inclusion of these men?
BARBERA: I haven’t heard a word about that. We’ve had chats but I haven’t heard any doubt along those lines.
DEADLINE: Have you spoken to Woody Allen? Is he excited about being back at an A-list festival?
BARBERA: I haven’t spoken to him directly but those close to him told me he is very happy to be coming. I’m curious to see the response to the film. It’s a good film, one of his best in recent years.
DEADLINE: Have you heard any whispers about the tenor of the jury’s discussions?
BARBERA: I know nothing of that. The first meeting between them is today, actually.
DEADLINE: When you look over at Telluride and TIFF, are there movies you see debuting there that you wish you could have had?
BARBERA: I wanted to see The Bikeriders but they decided not to show it to us. I was very curious. I also wanted to see Fingernails but Apple decided against bringing it to Venice. We’ve never had an Apple movie at the festival.
DEADLINE: There has been some speculation that due to the political situation in Italy becoming more right oriented, your position could be under threat. Is there any truth to that?
BARBERA: The mandate of the President of the Biennale expires at the end of February next year. We heard rumours that he won’t be renewed. We don’t know who his successor will be. My contract expires at the end of next year so I feel relatively confident that I’ll be here next year but beyond that it isn’t clear. So far we haven’t seen any impact on the festival from the new government. We’ve had friendly dialogue with the minister of culture so far. But you can’t foresee the agenda they may have in mind for the festival.
DEADLINE: Do you feel any threat to your position?
BARBERA: Not at all. I will accept any decision that is made. Former President of the Biennale Paolo Baratta told me once that when you work for a public institution, you can’t ask for the job, you can accept it if they offer it to you. That’s the right position. If they ask me to stay, I’ll stay with pleasure. If not, I’ll accept it.
DEADLINE: The festival remains a mecca for many. The streets are packed out there. You’re clearly doing a job that many enjoy. In the first day or two of this edition things seemed very quiet. Everyone was remarking the same. Maybe because of the strikes, the early bad weather and the opening movie being a local language production, but it has certainly picked up in terms of footfall…
BARBERA: Yes, our numbers are excellent. We’ll be releasing some accreditation and ticketing numbers tomorrow and they are up year-on-year. We’re selling more tickets to the public than ever before.
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