At least one thing seemed clear before the 2019 Venice International Film Festival lineup was announced: It would have quite a bit to live up to.
Last year was widely perceived as a watershed edition for Venice, which unveiled one of its most impressive lineups in years with the world premieres of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” and Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite,” both of which won major Venice prizes before going on to Oscar glory. The strength of that program, which also included Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born,” Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” and Joel and Ethan Coen’s “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” suggested that many eyes would be on this year’s lineup, unveiled early Thursday by festival director Alberto Barbera.
Among the 21 titles set to compete for the Golden Lion, the festival’s top prize, are James Gray’s “Ad Astra,” a science-fiction drama starring Brad Pitt; Roman Polanski’s “An Officer and a Spy,” an espionage thriller with French actors Jean Dujardin and Louis Garrel; Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” with Joaquin Phoenix in the villainous title role; Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” a divorce drama pairing Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson; and Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat,” a comedy about the Panama Papers scandal starring Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas.
The festival already announced last week that it would open with “The Truth,” starring Catherine Deneuve, Ethan Hawke and Juliette Binoche. The movie, playing in competition, is a first foray into French-language filmmaking from the Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose “Shoplifters” (2018) earned the Palme d’Or at Cannes and an Oscar nomination for foreign-language film.
The awards will be determined by an international jury presided over by the Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, who was previously at Venice in 2017 with “Zama.” The other jurors are directors Jennifer Kent, Shinya Tsukamoto and Paolo Virzì, actress Stacy Martin, cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and critic-historian Piers Handling, who stepped down last year as CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival.
Martel’s jury will have the chance to bestow the festival’s top prize on a debuting feature director like Shannon Murphy, whose “Babyteeth” is an Australian production starring Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis, or a past Golden Lion winner like the deadpan Swedish auteur Roy Andersson, returning to Venice with a new work called “About Endlessness.”
They will be joined in the competition by French director Olivier Assayas’ “Wasp Network,” a fact-based Cuban spy thriller with Penélope Cruz, Edgar Ramírez, Gael García Bernal and Wagner Moura; Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s “Ema,” a dance-themed melodrama starring García Bernal and Mariana Di Girolamo as a married couple; and “Guest of Honour,” Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s psychological drama with David Thewlis and Laysla De Oliveira.
The out-of-competition offerings include Benedict Andrews’ “Seberg,” a political thriller starring Kristen Stewart as Jean Seberg, the iconic actress who was targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program; David Michôd’s “The King,” an adaptation of several Shakespeare plays with Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Thomasin McKenzie and Robert Pattinson; and “Adults in the Room,” the veteran director Costa-Gavras’ first picture shot in his native Greece.
Several Venice titles, including “Joker,” “Marriage Story” and “The Laundromat,” will go on to screen shortly afterward at the Toronto International Film Festival, which announced its first wave of titles on Tuesday. Also set to premiere in competition in Venice before heading across the Atlantic are Lou Ye’s “Saturday Fiction,” a black-and-white thriller set in Japanese-occupied China and starring Gong Li; “No. 7 Cherry Lane,” an animated film about a 1967-set love triangle from the Hong Kong director Yonfan; and “The Painted Bird,” Czech director Václav Marhoul’s adaptation of the controversial 1965 wartime novel of the same title.
Saudi Arabian director Haifaa Al-Mansour will compete with her comic drama “The Perfect Candidate,” about a female physician who defies her conservative, patriarchal society to run for municipal office. That plot description can’t help but bring to mind the difficult odds that women directors often face in major international film festivals. Like Cannes, Venice has come under scrutiny for the relatively low number of female-directed pictures it programs in competition; last year’s slate featured only one, Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale.” The 2019 program represents a slight improvement on that number with two, “Babyteeth” and “The Perfect Candidate.”
Also likely to come in for some criticism, if also inevitable interest, is the selection of Polanski’s “An Officer and a Spy.” Although the controversial Polish director has been regularly invited to Venice and other European festivals over the years, this is his first picture since his 2018 expulsion from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences amid new allegations of sexual assault and renewed #MeToo focus on his 1977-78 rape trial. Polanski received a Golden Lion for career achievement from the festival in 1993.
“Waiting for the Barbarians,” the first English-language feature from the Colombian director Ciro Guerra (“Birds of Passage”), stars Johnny Depp, Mark Rylance and Robert Pattinson, and will premiere in competition. It will be joined there by “Gloria Mundi,” a family drama from the French auteur Guédiguian, and Tiago Guedes’ “A Herdade,” a decades-spanning saga set in his native Portugal.
Rounding out the main competition are three Italian filmmakers: Pietro Marcello with “Martin Eden,” Franco Maresco with the documentary “La Mafia Non è Più Quella di Una Volta” and Mario Martone with “The Mayor of Rione Sanità,” an adaptation of Eduardo De Filippo’s 1960 three-act comedy set in crime-ridden contemporary Naples.
Last year’s strong showing led more than one industry wag to suggest that Venice had upstaged Cannes as a major industry launchpad, though it had undoubtedly benefited from that festival’s ongoing refusal to allow the streaming giant Netflix in competition. As a result, “Roma” and a few other Netflix titles bypassed Cannes for Venice, which has no such restrictions.
This year, Netflix will be represented in Venice with “Marriage Story,” “The Laundromat” and “The King,” a decision that already isn’t sitting well with European film exhibitors. According to a report by Variety’s Nick Vivarelli, the International Union of Cinemas (UNIC) issued a statement denouncing the inclusion of Netflix titles and called for them “to get a full theatrical release.”
Traditional Hollywood studios will be present on Venice’s Lido as well, among them Warner Bros. with “Joker,” seeking a rare awards-season profile for a comic-book adaptation, and Disney with “Ad Astra,” inherited as part of its acquisition of Fox.
Two anticipated series that will screen episodes in Venice are “The New Pope,” Paolo Sorrentino’s Jude Law-starring follow-up to “The Young Pope,” and “Zerozerozero,” Stefano Sollima’s crime drama with Andrea Riseborough, Dane DeHaan and Gabriel Byrne.
The festival’s retrospective offerings will include three titles that generated a fair amount of controversy on initial release: David Cronenberg’s auto-erotic shocker “Crash,” screening in a 4K restoration of its uncut NC-17-rated version; Stanley Kubrick’s final feature, “Eyes Wide Shut,” which screened at Venice 20 years ago; and Gaspar Noé’s “Irreversible,” whose nine-minute rape scene sent audiences streaming for the exits at Cannes back in 2003.
As previously announced, actress Julie Andrews and director Pedro Almodóvar will both receive Golden Lions for lifetime achievement. The closing-night film, also announced last week, will be “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” a thriller set against the present-day Italian art scene. Directed by Giuseppe Capotondi, the movie stars Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Donald Sutherland and Mick Jagger.
The Venice International Film Festival runs from Aug. 28 to Sept. 7.