Without Zendaya, Venice Opening Night Movie Lands Soft 90-Second Standing Ovation 

In an alternate universe, Zendaya would be breaking the Internet with her red carpet fashion and raves for her performance in Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers,” the movie that was supposed to open the 80th annual Venice Film Festival.

But the SAG-AFTRA strike made it impossible for the tennis drama, which MGM pushed to a 2024 release date, to come to the Lido. 

So instead, Venice kicked off with World War II drama “Comandante” by young Italian auteur Edoardo De Angelis. The movie, mostly set on a submarine, landed a brief 90-second standing ovation as actor Pierfrancesco Favino — who plays naval officer Salvatore Todaro — took a bow.

Indeed, the lack of star power was strongly felt at Venice opening night. The crowds lined outside the Sala Grande Theatre was modest in size, and the biggest cheers went to Damien Chazelle, who is presiding over the Venice jury. Jane Campion, another jury member, waded into the crowds to sign autographs and take selfies. 

But it was a vast difference from years past when an appearance from Lady Gaga or Timothee Chalamet would shut down any foot traffic near the theater. 

Hollywood’s labor issues have played a starring role at Venice. During the day’s first press conference, Chazelle and fellow juror Martin McDonagh expressed support for the ongoing writers’ and actors’ strikes in Hollywood, sporting a “Writers Guild on Strike” shirt and pin.

Venice chief Alberto Barbera reiterated that despite promotional complications prompted by the strike there will be a smattering of U.S. star power on the Lido, with Adam Driver expected on hand to promote “Ferrari,” while Cailee Spaeny and Jacob Elordi will be coming for Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla,” Caleb Landry Jones for Luc Besson’s “Dogman,” and Jessica Chastain will jet in for Mexican auteur Michel Franco’s “Memory,” which is screening toward the end of the festival.

The highlight of the opening ceremony, hosted by Italian actor Caterina Murino – who is best known globally for playing Solange in James Bond movie “Casino Royale” – occurred when Charlotte Rampling handed the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement to revered Italian auteur Liliana Cavani. Rampling was the unforgettable protagonist of Caviani’s groundbreaking 1974 “The Night Porter,” in which she played a concentration camp survivor who discovers that her former torturer and lover, played by Dirk Bogarde, is working as a porter at a hotel in postwar Vienna.

“In a certain sense you could say that both Liliana Cavani and I have have been defined by ‘Night Porter,’ said Rampling.

In an impassioned, beautifully delivered speech, Rampling went on to note that for “Night Porter” “Cavani had in mind the words of a woman, an Auschwitz survivor, who could never forgive her captors for making her survive her own dark side.” Speaking about Cavani’s vast body of work – which also comprises “Francesco,” in which Mickey Rourke plays Saint Francis of Assisi, and Patricia Highsmith adaptation “Ripley’s Game,” starring John Malkovich – Rampling underlined that “From the early 1960s Cavani has been forcing us to confront the beautiful, the ugly, and the unresolved.”

Cavani, who was given a standing ovation, took the opportunity to point out that she is the first woman over 80 editions f the Venice Film Festival to be awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. “It’s not entirely fair,” she said. “There are women screenwriters and directors who work just as well as men,” she added.

“If you think about it, we need the possibility of being seen. I think the festival should consider this. They should consider the fact that women can make cinema. There is an imbalance and I hope this is beginning [of change].”

Cavani, who is 90, is also at Venice with her latest film “The Order of Time,” a meditation on time based on a book by Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, screening out-of-competition. 

The other big star of Venice’s opening day was Italian A-lister Pierfrancesco Favino who in “Comandante” plays heroic naval commander Salvatore Todaro, who on Oct. 15, 1940, as commander of the submarine Cappellini, sank a Belgian merchant ship called Kabalo that was carrying aircraft parts and operating under British rule. He then surfaced, disobeying orders from his own command, and proceeded to rescue the Kabalo’s 26 crew members, acting in accordance with what he called “the law of the sea” under which “nobody is left at sea.”

De Angelis, who recently directed Elena Ferrante adaptation series “The Lying Life of Adults,” said he was inspired to make “Comandante” after hearing Todaro cited by an Italian admiral as a role model for how Italy’s coast guard should behave in rescuing migrants from North Africa as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean to seek a better life in Europe.

“The spark that led me to tell this story is that of the strength of people who rush to aid those who are weakest,” he said. “That is the real reason I wanted to make this movie.”

Venice runs through Sept. 9.

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