Venice and Film

August 2020 – The scaffolding is almost finished outside the Venice Film Festival building on Lido di Venezia. In this strange year of disruption and uncertainty, the Mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro has made it his business to make sure that the Venice Film Festival goes ahead as normal. Well of course it won’t be exactly as usual because there won’t be any American films showing at the event, instead there’ll be a selection of European and Asian films. However there will be a total of about seventy films featuring in the competition, which will run from 2nd to 12th September, 2020.

CONFIDENCE – in terms of a positive message to the world it is really important, vital even, that the film festival goes ahead this year. After all Venice is a city of dreams and inspiration, a city of imagination and exceptional beauty. Venice is also a city of events and activity. Venice needs her admirers, visitors and fans – without an adoring audience ‘La Serenissima’ is diminished and risks being forgotten. Just like an actor who finds their career is coming to an end and the invitations to appear in films and attend glittering parties start to dwindle, so a city needs to offer exhibitions and events.

FAIRYTALE FILMS – When Katharine Hepburn came to Venice in the 1950s to film ‘Summertime’ she created a romantic, playful, charming film where she shared the starring role with the city of Venice. Hepburn plays Jane Hudson a single lady from Ohio, a self-confessed ‘independent type’ who has saved for many years to make a special trip to Venice. Of course she falls in love, not just with the city but with a Venetian too. The film is elegantly filmed and seamlessly directed by the talented David Lean. Venice’s palaces and canals are beautifully shown and the camera captures the unique charms of the city. The film also portrays the vulnerability and loneliness of the heroine without descending into sentimental self pity.

DAVID LEAN later said that he had given more of himself in this film than any other he had made. He also said that Katharine Hepburn was his favourite actress. There is a scene in the movie where Hepburn is so engrossed filming a small square in Venice that she falls into a canal. You can follow this action in the film clip below. The humiliation and vulnerability that shows in her face as this incident unfolds is just one of many touching moments in the film. The love story that develops in the film between Jane Hudson and a local Antiques Dealer, Renato de Rossi, is charming and completely engaging. The movie was nominated for two Oscars and both Hepburn and Lean won several awards for the film. The combination of great acting, fabulous direction and the superb Venetian panoramas created a piece of cinema history in glorious ‘technicolor’ that exceeded all expectations. Perhaps including Venice as a supporting role, or even the starring role, provided the sparkle and gold dust that made ‘Summertime’ such a great film!

Katharine Hepburn falls into a canal in Venice – Summertime (1955)

EVERY time Venice appears in a film, TV programme or an advertisement it gives the viewer, wherever they are, the opportunity to see and appreciate the beauty of Venice. It also gives us the opportunity to dream about a visit or perhaps to buy a book about Venice and it’s history. Daphne du Maurier’s short story ‘Don’t Look Now’ (1973) was made into a film, set in Venice, about a couple recovering from the grief of losing a child. The film is set in a foggy, sinister Venice in the depths of winter. It is atmospheric, chilling, tragic – similar to the mood of the grieving parents. Like any great actor Venice can play many parts, fun and romantic, dark and frightening, lavish and ostentatious, cultured and artistic.

VENICE is no stranger to tragedy – plague and disease have struck the city at regular intervals over her long history. The film ‘Death in Venice’ deals with some of this dark subject matter. It is in many ways the opposite of ‘Summertime’. Adapted from Thomas Mann’s novella of the same name, this powerful 1970s movie directed by Luchino Visconti explores the darkness, decay and final years of a talented composer, suffering from an inability to write music. The film is set on the Lido di Venezia in the early years of the 20th century. Typhoid rages in the streets of Venice. Whilst ‘Summertime’ is all love, romance, colour and light, ‘Death in Venice’ is melancholy and brooding and filled with yearning. Funnily enough it is the yearning that is the common factor in both these films. Jane Hudson is searching for meaning to her life. Whilst Dirk Bogarde struggles with an obsessional interest in a beautiful young boy called Tadzio who he admires from a distance.

WHILST death and uncertainty fill the narrow streets of Venice the soundtrack of Gustav Mahler builds tension and pathos in this gloomy and yet surprisingly atmospheric film. When the film was released in 1971 the original promotional poster featured Bogarde, Tadzio and the city of Venice. Three stars in the film – not just two and one of them the remarkably enduring ‘City of Venice’.

Dirk Bogarde starred in 'Death in Venice' 1971 film by Visconti, filmed in Venice and on the Lido
Dirk Bogarde starred in ‘Death in Venice’ 1971 film by Visconti, filmed in Venice and on the Lido
Death in Venice - vintage poster (1971) to promote the film
Death in Venice – vintage poster (1971) to promote the film
Dirk Bogarde starred in 'Death in Venice' 1971 film by Visconti, filmed in Venice and on the Lido
Dirk Bogarde starred in ‘Death in Venice’ 1971 film by Visconti, filmed in Venice and on the Lido

VENICE – provides the eloquent backdrop for all of these films and is by no means overshadowed by the human stars! In fact Venice’s heritage as a film location dates back to the 1930s, when business man, entrepreneur and supporter of Mussolini, Count Giuseppe Volpi, was one of the founding fathers of the Venice Film Festival. The first International Exhibition of Cinematographic Art took place in August, 1932 on the Lido di Venezia at The Excelsior Hotel. Films from Italy, France, Germany, Poland, Holland, Great Britain, USA and the Soviet Union were all included in the programme. One of the first films to be shown was ‘Jekyll and Hyde’. Whilst much film production in Italy in the thirties was essentially a propaganda machine, producing film and information reels in support of Mussolini’s vision of Italy as a key player in 20th century European politics, it has to be recognised that the first Film Festival in Venice, in 1932, the oldest in the world, was a truly international and artistic affair.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931) the first film shown at Venice Film Festival – 1932

LA MOSTRA DI CINEMA – the Venice Film Festival is the oldest and one of the most influential film festivals globally. The founders were visionary in creating a movie and media event that would secure Venice’s artistic and cultural legacy. Every year film makers, directors, producers, journalists and photographers flood into Venice for the festival. In recent years, during the film festival it has been common to see famous actors stepping from luxurious motor launches onto the teak decking of the Excelsior Hotel’s fabled piers. This year Cate Blanchett is ‘Presidente’ of Judges at the 77th Venice Film Festival. Last year Todd Phillip’s won the coveted Golden Lion Award for his film ‘Joker’ the prequel to the Batman movies.

The terrace at Hotel Excelsior hosts a screening at the first film festival – 1932

MY OWN fascination with Venice and film continues strongly although I get frustrated and annoyed by the liberties that film-makers take when filming canal and street scenes in Venice which don’t seem to represent reality. A serious culprit was ‘The Tourist’ a film starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, which took no account of the real arrangement of buildings between the Rialto Bridge and the Fish Market. However the film was visually lush and Venice, as usual, emerged as a definite star. Even now film crews appear in Venice at regular intervals. In March of this year Tom Cruise was in Venice for the filming of the latest Mission Impossible movie. However the filming schedule was delayed by the ‘lockdown’ imposed on much of Europe during March and April of this year. Just last week a car advert, I think for Audi, was being filmed next to the Bridge of Sighs. There’s no doubt that Venice’s enduring appeal to film makers continues and shows no sign of waning.

The Tourist (2010): Angelina Jolie + Johnny Depp – visually stunning, annoying story line
Venice - Carnival Ladies - February 2020
Venice – Carnival Ladies – February 2020 – A city where ‘to strike a pose’ is always possible!

IT SEEMS TO ME that Venice is a city of spectacle and drama. Today film is a very important part of the performance heritage that exists in Venice. For generations Venice has attracted artists, writers, poets and actors. In the 18th century this relatively small city, in the middle of the Venetian lagoon had more than a dozen public theatres. Concerts, plays, street theatre, parades and regattas were a part of every day life. Vivaldi was musical director at La Pieta Church, whilst Carlo Goldoni, the Venetian playwright was producing numerous plays about Venice and Venetian life. Mozart performed here in Venice in the 1770s, whilst Canaletto painted numerous ‘vedute’ scenes of this most beautiful of cities. In this artistic melting pot of originality and creativity it is entirely fitting that the oldest film festival in the world should have been founded and continues to thrive to this day.

The Talented Mr Ripley comes unstuck in Venice (1999)


  • The Venice Film Festival Founders were:
  • Count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata – Presidente (Biennale)
  • Antonio Maraini – Segretario Generale (scultore)
  • Luciano De Feo, SG – Istituto Internazionale per il cinema educativo
  • Volpi was also Finance Minister to Mussolini in the early thirties.
  • The Biennale of Venezia – was founded in 1895: Here’s the history (in italian)
  • A few lovely highlights from ‘Summertime’ – Katharine Hepburn (1955) – magical, romantic, escapism, perfect.

Venice Carnival 2020 - Photo session San Giorgio Maggiore
Venice Carnival 2020 – Photo session San Giorgio Maggiore

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Canaletto – Bacino San Marco (detail) – Wallace Collection
  • Happy Reading!
  • Written: 20th August 2020
  • Updated: 26th August, 2020 / 3rd Septemnber, 2020
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Venice – whenever a director chooses Venice as a location, they have to accept that Venice ‘La Serenissima’ is now the star! San Marco – March 2020
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Summertime - movie, Katharine Hepburn relaxes on the terrace
Summertime – movie, Katharine Hepburn relaxes on the terrace
Venice - Giornate degli autori - an opportunity to meet the writers at the Venice Film Festival
Venice – Giornate degli autori – an opportunity to meet the writers at the Venice Film Festival

11 thoughts on “Venice and Film

  1. Another Winner, Janet – you deserve your own Oscar for your various portrayals of this beautiful City and all the goodies She has to offer, whether on celluloid or in the flesh, on the canvas or on the written page. Thank you so much for yet another truly ITALIAN (Informative, Totally Absorbing, Loving, Insightful And Nonpareil) Masterpiece!

    Liked by 1 person

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