La Mostra Internazionale del Cinema di Venezia, una storia lunga decenni

During these days Italy is helding Venice Festival, considered to be the first international event of its type. Which is its very peculiar and long history through the years? Here you are a short and brief summary…
The first “Esposizione d’Arte Cinematografica” came into being in 1932 as part of the 18th Venice Biennale under the auspices of Count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, President of the Biennale, the sculptor Antonio Maraini, General Secretary, and Luciano De Feo, General Secretary of the International Institute for Educational Cinema, based in Rome. Luciano De Feo was the very first director-selector. 

The 1932 Festival was held on the terrace of the Hotel Excelsior on the Venice Lido, and while at that stage it was not a competitive event, it included foremost films which became classics in the history of cinema: It Happened One Night by Frank Capra, Grand Hotel by Edmund Goulding, The Champ by King Vidor, Frankenstein by James Whale, Zemlja by Aleksandr Dovzenko, Gli uomini, che mascalzoni! by Mario Camerini and A nous la liberté by René Clair. 

As of 1935 the Festival became a yearly event (a clear sign of its international success) under the direction of Ottavio Croze. There was an increase in the number of films and countries participating, and the actors’ award was renamed “Coppa Volpi”. In 1936 an international jury was nominated for the first time and in 1937 the new Palazzo del Cinema was inaugurated (designed by the architect Luigi Quagliata).

Because of the war, few countries participated in the 1940, 1941 and 1942 Festivals, not taken into consideration later on, with the dominating presence of the members of the Alliance. Following the war pause, the Festival was held again in 1946 with screenings at Cinema San Marco (the Palazzo del Cinema had been requisitioned by the Allies).

The 1947 Festival was held in the splendid setting of the courtyard of the Ducal Palace, with a record audience of 90,000. It was one of the best festivals and saw the return of the USSR and the new “popular democracies” including Czechoslovakia, which won first prize for Siréna by Karel Stekly.

Between 1961 and 1962 the Festival successfully became a showcase for renewal in cinema. The different sections included films from free British cinema, the consecration of the nouvelle vague, and young Italian directors: Pasolini, Bertolucci and the Taviani brothers.

The Festival (along with the Biennale) still had a statute dating back to the fascist era and could not side-step the general political climate. Sixty-eight produced a dramatic fracture with the past. Up until 1980 the Lions were not awarded. 

It took Carlo Lizzani, director from 1979 to 1982, to win back international prestige for the Festival, flanking films in competition with significant retrospectives, sections devoted to experimentation (“Officina”) and most importantly the new section “Mezzogiorno-Mezzanotte” devoted to spectacular films (Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.), remakes (Vertigo, Leave Her to Heaven) or eccentrics, ideated by the great, late critic Enzo Ungari. The formula inaugurated by the Lizzani-Ungari duo was to become a model for festivals throughout the world. The new course was consolidated in 1983, under the direction of Gian Luigi Rondi. 

In 1990 the jury headed by Gore Vidal assigned the Golden Lion to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in preference to the visionary emerging talent of Jane Campion. This controversial decision kindled heated debate between the public and experts, with shades of the ’50s when the juries apparently ignored Visconti’s films.


Alberto Barbera, director of the Festival from 1999 to 2001, created the section “Cinema del Presente” in parallel to the customary competition. He embarked on a double course of action. In addition to the Golden Lion we had the Lion of the Year aimed to highlight debut films and fringe feature films, as well as works comparable to genres and current productions, with innovative intentions and creative originality. 

In 2004, Marco Muller was appointed as director of the Cinema section. The festival awarded Manoel de Oliveira and Stanley Donen with the Golden Lion for Career Achievement. Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake won the Golden Lion for best film. A retrospective section was dedicated to the Secret History of Italian Cinema, whose first segment Italian Kings of the B’s was also presented in Tokyo, Milan, and London.

In 2007, the Venice Film Festival celebrated its 75th anniversary. Director Alexander Kluge, who was also born in 1932 and the winner in Venice of two Golden Lions and one Silver Lion, prepared a special retrospective program on the last 75 years in the history of cinema. A special award was created, the Golden Lion of the 75th edition, and presented to Bernardo Bertolucci. 


In 2011, through an agreement with the City of Venice a radical renovation restored the historic Sala Grande (1937) to its original style. The whole walkway leading from the Hotel Excelsior to the Casino Palace was refurbished. The Lion’s Bar was completely redeveloped focusing on quality design also for the adjacent areas.
The 69th Festival in 2012 saw Alberto Barbera as the new artistic director alongside remarkable new initiatives: the launch of Biennale College – Cinema, a higher education training workshop for the development and production of micro-budget audio-visual works, and the establishment of the Venice Film Market in dedicated spaces at the Excelsior Hotel. As part of the renovation – in agreement with the City of Venice – of the existing facilities of the Festival, which included the restoration of the Sala Grande in 2011, a new, larger and more functional foyer in the Palazzo del Cinema was built to welcome the public. The intervention also included the renovation of two historic screening rooms, the Pasinetti and Zorzi, for an overall extension of 50 more seats.
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