The world’s oldest film festival, Bella Venezia (International Exhibition of Cinematographic Art of the Venice Biennale), is also its most beautiful. The location itself guarantees it because Venice never disappoints. Nestled in a short stretch of the Lido, no more than half a mile long, screenings are held in eight different venues close by. Premieres take place at the Palazzo del Cinema and the unofficial headquarters is the grand Hotel Excelsior, reminiscent of a Moroccan palace where all famous members of the festival jury stay. This is also where private boats deliver the stars from hotels on other islands and take guests to parties in Venice proper (as the famous city is called).
The Excelsior used to play host to such world famous Italians as Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni when they first attended events there in the good old days of the 1950s and 60s.
Opening night was a high in the truest sense of the word. Damien Chazelle, who triumphed with “La La Land” right there on the Lido only two years ago, could have sung an old tune about his new film: ‘Fly me to the Moon’. This is exactly the journey he took the audience on with the world premiere of “First Man”, the story of Neil Armstrong wonderfully portrayed by Ryan Gosling who changed from a red suit into a white tuxedo after our cocktail reception and before he posed on the red carpet. His queen of heart, Claire Foy, who plays his wife in the movie, did not waste time in between and arrived in a stunning color block red and pink Valentino gown. Valentino was the designer of choice this year: Naomi Watts, Lady Gaga and Natalie Portman chose the legendary Italian’s beautiful gowns.
This year the festival celebrated its 75th anniversary – never mind that it is actually older but went on hiatus during the war, so the 75th it is. And since it shares its official birthday with the Golden Globes, the two decided to host this year’s biggest do. In a huge see-through tent in the Excelsior’s pool area, festival director Alberto Barbera welcomed every big name who happened to be there on the first weekend.
And while a thunderstorm prevented Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton from landing on time, the party was not lacking in guests. Naomi Watts who was on the main jury greeted Italy’s hottest director of the moment, Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me By Your Name”). They could only exchange a few words since Guadagnino’s newest film was in competition. The same happened with German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the Oscar winner for “The Lives of Others” more than a decade ago. He too had a film in the main competition.
The most anticipated star to arrive in Bella Venezia was without a doubt a New York Italian named Stefani Germanotta, better known as Lady Gaga. After a brief stint on the TV-series “American Horry Story”, this was her big break into film and not just any film. Bradley Cooper decided to take on a most ambitious project for his directorial debut, the remake of a famous remake of a famous remake. “A Star is Born” originally starred Judy Garland, then Barbra Streisand. Now it is Gaga’s turn. She was visibly nervous when we met for bellinis on the windblown terrace of the Ca Giustinian Palazzo. In her disarming way – she always wears her vulnerability on her sleeve – she managed to joke about the pale pink feathery gown she wore on the red carpet the night before. Not the best choice during a rainstorm: “I could have turned into a wet Big Bird!” She and her dress were saved by the bell when the premiere started and everyone hurried into the Sala Grande. And then lightning struck, literally. The projector quit 40 minutes into the film: “I saw that as a good sign. Especially since no one left the room.” The projector was repaired and the premiere ended with a very long standing ovation: “After it was over I had to go into a room and have a good cry, it was all very emotional”, the star admitted.
To move the Lady from location to location posed a challenge to the organizers. She was constantly followed by at least six to eight paparazzi boats and hordes of fans. Her director and co-star Bradley Cooper had it a lot easier. He attended parties without a big hoopla and chatted with colleagues and admirers such as actress and one of Hollywood’s faces to watch, Laura Bilgeri.
Salma Hayek did not have a film to promote, but flew in from Paris to receive the Franca Sozzani Award from Vogue at the Cipriani Hotel. The Mexican star stayed a few days longer and enjoyed the city with husband Francois Pinault, the French billionaire businessman who owns, amongst others, Gucci. They hosted dinners at Palazzina G and took boat rides to the Art Biennale and the Guggenheim Museum.
We caught up with Aussie actress Nicky Whelan in a more casual setting, over dinner across from the Rialto Bridge. Nicky ended up going to a few festival parties by pure coincidence: she is on an extended vacation in Italy after finishing back-to-back projects in Los Angeles, and left for Rome and the Amalfi Coast a few days later.
One of the most exclusive events was a luncheon at the private palazzo of Venetian Countess Chiara Modica Dona dalle Rose, who held a fundraiser for refugees with documentary filmmaker Odessa Rae and “Oceans Eight” producer Diana Alvarez under the UNHCR banner. The event was hosted by the lovely British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Belle”, “Concussion”) and two Nigerian refugees talked about their harrowing escape before they – both musicians – performed for the guests in the breathtakingly gorgeous salon of the 900-year-old palazzo. The Countess also put 40 pieces of art, among them 11 Warhols, up for sale to benefit refugee programs.
The festival ended on a high note for Alfonso Cuaron whose “Roma” won the Golden Lion. And for Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos and his leading lady Olivia Colman who walked away with the Grand Jury Prize and the Coppa Volpi for best actress. After it came to a close, everyone who stayed on could finally really enjoy the city.