Auteurs and workers’ rights spotlit at a less starry Venice film festival

<span>Photograph: Yara Nardi/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Yara Nardi/Reuters

From Elizabeth Taylor lounging barefoot on the beach and Marlon Brando catching a water taxi, to Brigitte Bardot frolicking on a green lawn, the Venice film festival has always been synonymous with celebrity and glamour.

But with dual strikes by the writers’ and actors’ guilds forcing a Hollywood shutdown, and actors prohibited from promoting studio films during labour action, this year’s edition of the world’s oldest film festival was always going to be different. Venice without the stars, the Italians can contend, is like a spritz without the fizz.

In the absence of Zendaya in couture and Bradley Cooper basking in the glow of a standing ovation, one theme quickly began to emerge: the belligerence of major studios in recognising and fairly compensating actors and creators for their work.

From the opening day, when members of the competition jury – including directors Damien Chazelle, Martin McDonagh and Laura Poitras – wore T-shirts emblazoned with “Writers Guild on Strike!”, it was clear most of those travelling to the Lido had an opinion on the matter. The optics were important – lest you’d be for ever known as the traitor who broke rank.

Adam Driver, one of a handful of celebrities who walked the red carpet after his film, Ferrari, received a waiver from Sag-Aftra, took a swipe at some of the industry’s biggest players. “Why is it that a smaller distribution company like Neon and STX International can meet the dream demands of what Sag is asking for … but a big company like Netflix and Amazon can’t?” he said.

Wes Anderson, whose new Roald Dahl adaptation, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, premiered in Venice, said he believed “an equitable deal has got to be reached for anybody to go forward” and that “people are suffering”. Sofia Coppola, who was in town with her highly anticipated new film, Priscilla, said she was “totally behind the unions’ hard work to fight for fair compensation”.

And everyone was listening. Without actors and the reams of headlines they would usually generate (it was only a year ago when social media was filled with gossip over the backstage dramatics of Don’t Worry Darling, after all), it was the auteurs and other members of the film production crews that took centre stage for a change.

Fans lined the red carpet screaming out for David Fincher and Michael Mann; the veteran cinematographer Vittorio Storaro received a standing ovation; makeup artist Kazu Hiro took responsibility for addressing controversy over the use of a prosthetic nose in Maestro. Poor Things director Yorgos Lanthimos’s comments over the lack of sex scenes in modern movies sparked an entire discourse over the artistic merits of full-frontal nudity in cinema.

But the inclusion of some directors on the festival lineup generated much consternation, too. With new films premiering from Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and Luc Besson, who have faced sexual abuse allegations, it was up to the festival’s director, Alberto Barbera, to justify their inclusion in a spate of interviews.

“The history of art is full of artists who were criminals, and we nonetheless continue to admire their work,” Barbera said of Polanksi. Allen, he added, had “been completely absolved” and continuing hostility towards him was “absolutely incomprehensible”, while a rape inquiry against Besson was dropped by French prosecutors. “We need to have faith in the justice system,” he told the Guardian.

Barbera was far from alone in those sentiments. When Allen arrived at the Lido for the premiere of his 50th film, Coup de Chance, on Monday, he received a largely rapturous reception – despite being blackballed by Hollywood over allegations he sexually assaulted his adopted daughter in 1992 (Allen was never charged and has always maintained his innocence).

When the quadruple Oscar winner entered the packed press conference room, he received a standing ovation from much of the European press. And while about 15 shirtless protesters demonstrated against what they called the “rape culture” of the festival on the sidelines of Allen’s premiere, the director – flanked by his family – received another standing ovation and enthusiastic rounds of cheers from fans.

So despite being robbed of some of its glitz, Venice has not been devoid of controversy. And with the festival running for another few days, there will be more notable films shown – including Ava DuVernay’s Origin on Tuesday, which marks the first time a film by an African American woman has played in competition.

Origin is one of several films from the lineup billed as potential Oscar contenders, with Venice maintaining its reputation as an awards season launchpad.

Were reports of the festival’s death greatly exaggerated? It would appear so.