by Roderick Conway Morris

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Lions on the Lido

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE, Italy 7 September 2007
Biennale di Venezia
Poster for the 1934 Venice Film Festival



Is cinema art? The organizers of the first Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte Cinematografica on the Lido of Venice seventy-five years ago this August, by their very choice of title boldly declared that, as far as they were concerned, it was. 'Cinematographic art seems to me the avant-garde of all the arts', said one of them, the sculptor Antonio Maraini, secretary-general of the Venice Biennale. 'As a product of huge collaboration directed at a huge public, it seems to me, if I dare say so, the art most characteristic of the 20th century.' The original nine nations represented in 1932 had grown by this year to twenty-nine, with sixty-one features and forty-five 'shorts' in the programme. It was an annus mirabilis for British films, with four in competition: Kenneth Branagh's Sleuth, Peter Greenaway's Nightwatching, Ken Loach's It's a Free World and Joe Wright's adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement, the event's opening film.

Venice is generally credited with being the mother of all film festivals, of which there are now several hundred around the globe. This is not strictly true. There were local film competitions, for example, in Milan and Padua during the 1920s, and Prague pipped the Lido to the post as an event with foreign participation some months earlier in 1932.

But Venice was the first large-scale international happening of its kind, and the first to win significant press coverage (in 1934, over 300 journalists were accredited). The Venice Mostra, as it became officially known from 1934 onwards, benefited greatly from the prestige of being part of the same stable as the Biennale of Visual Arts, founded in 1895 (a music festival was added to the Biennale's activities in 1930, and one for theatre in 1934). Maraini's fellow

organizers were Conte Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, president of the Biennale, and Luciano De Feo, head of the International Institute for Educational Cinema in Rome. It also helped that the Lido was one of the most fashionable bathing resorts of the times, with two grand hotels, the Moorish and, to some, monstrous Excelsior, and the architecturally more restrained Hotel des Bains. Count Volpi was a major investor in this luxury tourist market, and he and his associates in CIGA (Compagnia Italiana Grandi Alberghi) were the leading sponsors of the film festival.

Nine nations were represented by twenty-five feature films and nine shorts, screened between August 2 and 21. There was a hefty Hollywood presence, which accounted for over a third of the full-length movies. One of them, Edmund Goulding's Grand Hotel, with Greta Garbo, John Barrymore and Joan Crawford, could have been tailor-made for the occasion, the showings for this first edition taking place on the terrace of the Excelsior.

But the opening film was Rouben Mamoulian's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, starring Miriam Hopkins, whose legs received a review almost all to themselves from one local critic. He described them as 'one of the most fragrant and powerful revelations of sex and femininity ever seen at the cinema'. Competition was offered by the generous exposure of Leni Riefenstahl's legs in Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light), a semi-supernatural drama shot in the Dolomites, which she co-wrote and directed. (Her Olympia was to scoop up the foreign film first prize at Venice in 1938.)

Riefenstahl's was one of four German features, while there were five from France and two from the Soviet Union. With only one each were Czechoslovakia, Italy, Holland, Poland and Britain (The Faithful Heart, directed by Victor Saville). The system of nations choosing their own entries (adopted from the Visual Arts Biennale) rather than a committee in Venice making the selection, remained in place until as late as 1956.

Even at this early stage there was a lively debate as to whether Venice should remain a purely 'art' festival or involve itself with vulgar commerce by also promoting itself as an international film marketplace (a role that Cannes profitably developed after its inauguration in 1947). With falling government subsidies and the need to find new sources of income, the present Biennale administration is now keen that Venice should become a venue for the buying and selling of film rights.

There was a lobby, then as now, in favour of dress codes for the screenings, lo smoking or dinner jackets for men and long dresses for women. But the festival-goers proved resolutely casual, some even appearing in shirtsleeves. 'The spectacle gained from this an atmosphere of informality and good humour', a local journalist noted.

One of the later legends as to the origins of the festival is that it was practically invented by Mussolini for propaganda purposes. Nothing could be further from the case. Though Volpi had considerable political influence -he had been the Governor of Tripolitania between 1921 and 1925 and then Finance Minister in Rome -and had solicited Il Duce's endorsement and support, Mussolini refused to have anything to do with the festival or to put in an appearance there. And, as those who did attend remembered (an impression borne out by contemporary photographs), there was not a black shirt in sight.

The first Esposizione's degree of success took almost everybody by surprise, not least the Fascist regime, still slow to see its political potential. (Mussolini was utterly uninterested in the arts, unlike Hitler who drove him to distraction when he visited Rome, by insisting on dragging his host around museums and art galleries.) In 1934, seventeen nations were represented with forty feature films and forty-one 'shorts'. Prizes were awarded for the first time. One, for direction, went to Gustav Machaty for his film de scandale, Ecstasy, which made cinema history with its unprecedented displays of nudity and the first screen representation of a woman experiencing an orgasm in a non-pornographic movie. The young star of the piece was Hedwig Kiesler, who went on to Hollywood to become Hedy Lamarr.

Following the second festival, the regime finally decided to involve itself and the event became an annual one. In September 1934, a new section in the Ministry for the Press and Propaganda was created 'to regulate, inspire, direct, control . . . All forms and manifestations, all initiatives and all output in the field of Italian cinematography', the festival included. Mussolini's son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano flew in to open the proceedings in 1935, and from then on the Mostra del Cinema increasingly became a platform for films more concerned with propaganda than either pure art or commerce.

During the final years leading up to the war, countries that had been founding participants of the festival began to decline to contribute, the Soviet Union not returning in 1936, nor the US after 1938 (when Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves won a prize), though there was still a British representative on the jury as late as 1939. By 1942 the international element had been reduced to a rump of Fascist states, the prizes being divided between Italy, Germany, Hungary, Romania and Croatia (a Swiss documentary also won a prize), before hostilities led to the suspension of the event.

The revival of the festival in 1946 brought back the USSR and the US, both carrying off awards, but the screenings had to take place in a cinema in Venice, since the purpose-built Palazzo del Cinema on the Lido had been requisitioned by the Allies. Roberto Rossellini's Neo-realist classic Paisa was premiered there, but came away empty-handed. The Golden Lion was instituted in 1949.

In the 1950s Venice became an important springboard for Asian cinema, with Japanese directors securing a series of top awards, and Satyajit Ray winning the Golden Lion for Aparajito in 1957. Luchino Visconti's first colour film, Senso, based on Camillo Boito's tale of adultery, collaboration, cowardice and betrayal in nineteenth-century Venice, was passed over in 1954, reportedly under pressure from the Christian Democrat government in Rome, who deemed it unpatriotic. There were noisy scenes at the awards ceremony in 1960 when a French film bagged the Golden Lion instead of Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers. Political turmoil in 1968 ushered in a decade of disruption of the festival. Prizegiving was abandoned, alternative events were staged in town and the official occasion was twice cancelled, before proceedings more or less returned to normal in 1980.

As the decade progressed, there were complaints from some quarters that the festival was becoming excessively rarefied, turning its back on even Hollywood's more intelligent productions (with some few exceptions), especially when it came to awarding prizes. The late Gillo Pontecorvo, whose The Battle of Algiers had won the Golden Lion in 1966, was appointed artistic director in 1992 and resumed efforts to woo back American filmmakers and stars, including those involved in unashamedly commercial productions. This policy has been continued by Pontecorvo's successors, regularly bringing some Hollywood glamour to the Lido.

First published: Times Literary Supplement

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024