Toronto has the pre-Oscar clout, and Telluride the heady glamour. But of all the late-summer film festivals, Venice, which launches its 11-day program this evening, is the hidden jewel. (Follow TIME’s reviews from the 2012 Venice Film Festival) Founded in 1932, and now in its 69th edition (taking off a few years for wars and other calamities), the movie bash known officially as il Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica is the world’s first and oldest film festival. It has survived Mussolini, 39 post-fascist governments and an ongoing economic crisis that might make Italy the sick man of Europe if other nations weren’t even more threatened. (Thank you, Greece.) The city is also sinking — five times as fast as the locals believe, according to a recent study by U.S. scientists.
Yet the Festival, situated on the Lido, a 12-minute vaporetto ride from St. Mark’s Square, endures. Come here and you’ll be convinced that moviegoing is one long party. Just now, on Via Santa Maria Elisabetta outside our hotel, a parade of drum-beating, gaudily clad mummers carried a sign reading “Salviamo Cinecittà” — marching, presumably, to save the iconic Rome movie studio founded 75 years ago by Mussolini. Is Cinecittà about to close? Maybe; in Italy, almost everything is old, noble and potentially endangered. (Our hotel, the Hungaria Palace, has been here since 1907; tourists by the dozens pause to take photos of the wedding-cake mosaic façade by Luigi Fabris.) But Italians tend to react to problems with a smile and a shrug. That charming combination of optimism and fatalism is one reason that, in our seventh year as grateful visitors, we can say that Venice is the most congenial, benevolent, simpatico film festival we know.
(READ: Mary and Richard Corliss’s 10 Postcards from Venice 2011)
For the few American film journalists who come to the Lido, this is also the place to get a first look at the movies that other critics will discover at Toronto and which serious filmgoers will talk about from October into the Oscar season. Brokeback Mountain, The Queen, Michael Clayton, The Wrestler, The Hurt Locker, Capitalism: A Love Story and Black Swan all had their world premieres here. Last year Venice introduced The Ides of March, A Dangerous Mind, Shame, Contagion and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. The festival may not register highly on the American seismometer, but it’s where many important works get their start.
Sometimes we have seen events unique to Venice. In 2009 Oliver Stone presented his documentary South of the Border and brought a special guest, Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan President commandeered the screening, speaking to the audience in Spanish for five minutes, and exiting to a volume of cheers that could have spurred him to victory over Silvio Berlusconi. Last year Al Pacino came with Wilde Salome, detailing his research for his 2007 production of the Oscar Wilde play in which he starred as Herod opposite Jessica Chastain (making her film debut) as Salome. After the movie, Pacino wowed the audience with an impromptu monologue, some of it in Italian. It was a show worth taking on the road but, so far, Wilde Salome has played nowhere but on the Lido.
(READ: Mary Corliss’s report on Hugo Chavez in Venice)
Three big-ticket items loom this weekend.
- On Friday, Spike Lee will present Bad 25, a documentary on the making of Michael Jackson’s 1987 album. The film features interviews with Quincy Jones, the record’s producer, and many Jackson admirers, including Justin Bieber, Chris Brown, Mariah Carey, Sheryl Crow, CeeLo Green, Martin Scorsese and Kanye West.
- Saturday brings The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film since There Will Be Blood. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a charismatic speaker, thought to resemble Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard; and Joaquin Phoenix is the hobo who becomes his first apostle. Word is that the director screened his film for one prominent Scientologist: Tom Cruise, who had appeared in Anderson’s 1998 Magnolia. We don’t know Cruise’s reaction to the movie, but you’ll know ours this weekend.
- And on Sunday comes Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, a love story starring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Olga Kurylenko and Javier Bardem. This is just the sixth feature Malick has released in a 40-year career, and To the Wonder comes just a year after The Tree of Life premiered at Cannes. That rush of productivity is startling enough. If the reclusive director were to appear in public to present his film at the Sala Grande, that would be a true wonder.
(READ: Richard Corliss’s review of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life)
Today’s entry in the Venice competition, Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, may not make the noise of the two most recent opening-night films, Black Swan and The Ides of March, but it is tense, thoughtful and truly international in breadth and depth. Set in Pakistan and New York City, it traces the turbulent evolution of Changez (Riz Ahmed), the son of a Punjab poet (Om Puri), from Princeton grad and go-getter in a Bain-like company (run by Kiefer Sutherland) to a teacher and possible terror advocate back in Lahore. An American professor has been kidnapped, and a journalist (Liev Schreiber) wants to know what Changez knows; the viewer gets the reluctant fundamentalist’s life story in flashbacks.
Aside from a desultory detour into Changez’s affair with rich girl Erica (Kate Hudson), who expresses her devotion to him by exposing some of his vulnerabilities in her photo art, the movie raises questions meant to test America’s conscience. Can one admire the military genius of the 9/11 attack while deploring the deaths it created? Does a free society have the right to strip-search any model citizen who happens to be Pakistani, and to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians in a country that harbored al Qaeda? Is terrorism just America’s word for an insurgency of the kind that gave birth to the United States?
(READ: Richard Corliss on Riz Ahmed in Four Lions)
Nair, the India-born, Harvard-educated director of Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake, sleekly manages the thriller aspects of Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel. But this is a character study, and she has found some superb actors to fill it. The reunion of Puri and Shabana Azmi, two great lights of Indian cinema, as Changez’s parents would be sufficient reason for celebration. Sutherland and Schreiber give full force to America’s role in economic and political imperialism. And Turkish theater legend Haluk Bilginer steals his scene as a publisher of poetry (including works by Changez’s father) whose house is about to be shuttered by the young man’s conglomerate.
This, though, is Ahmed’s show. A Brit of Pakistani heritage, an Oxford scholar and rap artist (his “Post 9/11 Blues” was banned by the BBC for being “politically sensitive”), he first attracted attention as one of the detainees in Michael Winterbottom’s The Road to Guantanamo and starred as the leader of a would-be jihadist plot in Chris Morris’s black comedy Four Lions. Handsome, seductive and pensive, straddling the First and Third Worlds, Ahmed keeps viewers guessing as to what makes Changez run. If The Reluctant Fundamentalist is no life-altering movie, it surely offers Ahmed a star-making role — just the latest example of Venice being firstest with the mostest.