Unlike Cannes, unlike Toronto, unlike Sundance or Berlin, Venice never shut down because of COVID.

The world’s oldest film festival, which kicks off its 79th edition Wednesday, somehow managed to work within Italy’s strict coronavirus restrictions to ensure the show —albeit masked and socially distanced —would go on.

And what a show it’s been.

Under the guidance of long-term artistic director Alberto Barbera, Venice has balanced the blockbusters —Dune last year, Joker in 2019 — with the Oscar contenders: best picture winner Nomadland in 2020, best director honoree Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog in 2021, while still providing enough out-of-left-field surprises, from Audrey Diwan’s 2021 Golden Lion winner Happening, a prescient tale of abortion and women’s rights, to arthouse sleepers Quo Vadis, Aida? from Jasmila Žbanić and Christos Nikou’s gentle Greek satire Apples, two highlights from the 2020 Biennale.

There are no tentpoles in the 2022 Venice line-up — Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiography The Fabelmans is skipping the Lido to premiere in Toronto — but otherwise, Barbara’s picks make the 79th edition look like another banner year. Noah Baumbach’s opener White Noise with Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig; Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Mexican epic Bardo; Andrew Dominik’s Marylin Monroe biopic Blonde; Bones and All, which re-teams Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino with star Timothée Chalamet and Todd Field’s Cate Blanchett-starrer TÁR are just a sampling of the highlights.

Barbera spoke to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of this year’s fest about bringing fans back to the Lido red carpet, controversial choices (Kim Ki-duk!), and why he’s optimistic Venice could mark the post-COVID return of art-house cinema.

This is the first Venice Film Festival since COVID restrictions were lifted in Italy. How will this year be different?

We’re going back to the regular festival. There won’t be any limitations or restrictions. We’re following the guidelines from the [Italian] ministry of health and at the moment the situation is under control, infections are in decline across Italy. So we aren’t worried. We’ll be using the theaters to their fullest capacity. Masks won’t be required, though we’re still suggesting people should wear them if they wish.

Otherwise, it will be a regular festival again. The red carpet will be open to the audience again, not just limited to photographers as it was in the past two years.

And with films starring Timothée Chalamet (Bones and All) and Harry Styles (out-of-competition entry Don’t Worry Darling) should we expect a return of the screaming crowds of superfans?

Yes absolutely. We think that we’re going to have at least the same amount of people attending this year as in 2018 and maybe more. We’re still receiving requests for accreditation. On the first day we opened the box office we sold 18,000 tickets in a few hours. Hotels on the Lido and in Venice are fully packed. We might have some problems finding room for people because it’s almost impossible to find a place to stay in town.

Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet in ‘Bones and All’

Courtesy of MGM

You’re opening the festival with Noah Baumbach’s White Noise, the first Netflix film to open Venice. And you have 3 more Netflix films [Bardo, Blonde, Romain Gavras’ Athena] in competition, plus a special screening of the Nicholas Winding Refn’s Netflix series Copenhagen Cowboy. Is this a sign that the big debate over whether Netflix is “killing cinema” is over?

Well, we were the first festival to open our competition to Netflix movies [with Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation in 2015] and every year we have 1-2 Netflix films in competition. This year it is a bit more than usual. But it isn’t as if we have a preference for Netflix. We have films from Warner Bros. [Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling] from Universal and Focus [TÁR], A24 has three films [Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, Johanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter, Ti West’s out-of-competition Pearl].

But it’s just a fact that Netflix has become one of the biggest production companies for quality films. They invest a lot in producing movies from the most reputable filmmakers of the moment.

This doesn’t mean that Netflix has “won the war” against the traditional system or the traditional way of distributing films in theaters. Clearly, we are in the middle of a transition. We still don’t know where this transition will lead us. The film industry is reassessing the entire system of production and distribution.

It doesn’t mean the traditional way of distributing movies in theaters, or the traditional way of financing movies will go away. The problem now is that all the players have to find a new balance between the old and the new. It is hard to foresee what the situation will be in a few months or a few years’ time.

But when we select a film for the festival, the only criteria we use is the quality of the film itself. Netflix submitted a number of excellent films. We invited some of them, not all of them.

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s ‘Bardo’ is one of four Netflix films in Venice competition

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival/Netflix

Can I ask you about the traditional system? Since theaters re-opened, we’ve seen the big Hollywood blockbusters bounce back: films like Top Gun: Maverick, Elvis, and the Marvel movies. That hasn’t really been the case for the arthouse or quality movies, which make up most of Venice’s line-up. Why do you think that is?

That’s not an easy question to answer. Of course, theaters re-opened just a few months ago. And the offering of new films, aside from the big Hollywood movies, which played very, very well, weren’t good enough to convince the audience to come back to the theaters. But I’m quite optimistic with this new season, with this new batch of movies, that the audience will come back. They aren’t going to abandon the habit of watching films at home on platforms, but everybody knows that watching a film in a theater is a more rewarding experience from every point of view.

And here the role of the film festivals is quite important because the kind of promotion and exposure a festival can give an arthouse film is very important to create the wish of this audience to go back to theaters.

We saw during the pandemic lockdowns that a lot of great arthouse films just disappeared without a big festival push to support them.

That’s absolutely true. But as we come out of this, we can’t think we can go back to the old ways, to the same ways of promoting and distributing films as we did before the pandemic, before the platforms. Everything has changed, and we need to change how we distribute and promote films, to get audiences excited about seeing them again.

In addition to the big-name films this year you have, like every year, a number of very political movies in competition. You have 4 Iranian films in the line-up this year, which looks like a strong political statement, especially given the recent crackdown on dissident filmmakers in Iran.

Well, the selection process is a long one. This time longer than usual, we started in November, when usually we start in March or April. From January on we had an endless flood of films, we received more than we were able to watch. When it comes to the Iranian films, we saw them, and accepted them, months before this new, more difficult situation arose for Iranian filmmakers.

The last film we picked was Jafar Panahi’s No Bears, but that was almost a month before Jafar’s arrest [in July, the director was sentenced to six years in prison]. When we saw his movie, we immediately fell in love with it, we sent out the invitation and that was accepted immediately.

I’d like to underline the fact that we are not politically driven in our choices. There are a lot of political films in our selection this year, like Argentina, 1985 from Santiago Mitre for example, or the Indonesian film Autobiography, films that are strong statements against political regimes or governments.

But this is something that comes after we select the movie. Of course, I know that cinema can be one of the strongest tools we have to reflect contemporary society. It is one of the great strengths of cinema, and can be very, very effective in doing so.

Does that politically-neutral stance apply to Russia and Russian filmmakers? You have 3 Ukrainian films in official selection this year, but no Russian ones.

We had very, very few Russian films submitted this year. A couple were interesting, but not good enough to be selected. So we didn’t have to face the difficult situation of having to decide if we should invite them or not. But again, I would repeat what was said at the opening of the Biennale art exhibition: we won’t ban an artist only because of their nationality. We will not invite any person or film which is directly involved with the Russian Ministry of Culture of the Russian government.

But for an artist or a film coming from an artist, that is positioned against the war, speaking the truth to politics, I think it we should support them. Because they are facing a very difficult personal situation in their country. They risk their own lives, they could be put in prison because of their statements and their positions. It would be worse to boycott them when they need to be supported. But, as I said, we didn’t see a Russian film this year that was good enough to be invited to Venice.

Why did you decide to show the late Kim Ki-duk’s last movie, Call of God, in competition, despite the fact that multiple women accused the Korean director of rape?

When we saw the film, it was clear we were dealing with the last film by Kim Ki-duk. And he was in a way discovered by Venice, back in 2000 with The Isle, which made him, immediately, a very well-known arthouse filmmaker worldwide. He came back to Venice many, many times and won two important awards: including best director [for 3-Iron in 2004] and the best film in Venice Days in 2012 [for One on One].

Throughout the years, we would always look at his new movies —I’d say it was a kind of fidelity to the director, a kind of mutual respect and trust between the filmmaker and the festival —but they were much less interesting than this one. When Kim Ki-duk’s Estonian friends contacted me a year ago saying that there were working on completing the film that Ki-duk couldn’t finish, because he died during production, I thought we couldn’t let this opportunity pass.

We knew that he had been accused of sexual misbehavior. I don’t know the details and I’m not in a position to judge if it is true or not. I don’t want to make any judgment about a personal problem. I think that there are a lot of people who will be interested to watch the last film that Kim Ki-duk was not able to complete. And I think it is fair enough to show it at the festival that has probably the longest and more profound relationship with the director.

Not just in relation to Kim Ki-duk but in general, what do you think about those who don’t want to separate the film from the filmmaker? Because festivals like yours promote and celebrate the director as well as their work.

I understand this kind of criticism against the festival. We had to face the same situation, for example, two years ago on when we presented An Officer and a Spy from Roman Polanski in competition. I think that what I said then still stands. We are not a tribunal. I’m not a judge who can make a decision about the personality of a man or a woman. I am a film critic. I’m here to judge the quality of the thing that is submitted to the festival.

I think this separation between the man and the artist is inevitable. It’s part of the history of art. I’ve said before, we know that [Italian painter] Caravaggio was a murderer. But he made some of the most important masterpieces of 17th-century Italian painting. What should we do? Remove the paintings from the museums because Caravaggio was a murderer? I don’t think so.

My position right now is very controversial. But maybe, in a century, people will remember the films of Roman Polanski and they will forget or forgive the fact that he was accused of sexual misbehavior 40 years ago. Again, we are not here to judge the person or the man. We are here to judge the quality of the thing that he makes. Sometimes people that make good things do bad things.

If we can end with the films themselves. What do you think will most surprise people in this year’s line-up?

There are a number of highly-anticipated movies this year, but there are also a lot of surprising films. Every year we take the risk to put a debut director in competition. We do that this year with Saint Omer from a young French filmmaker [Alice Diop] who comes from documentaries. It’s a very strong film. I think it will be one of the surprises of the festival. But there will be others. Every year I say: don’t just go to the big movies that will be in theaters in a couple of months’ time. Try to follow your instincts, be curious and try to discover new talents. Because there will be more than one this year in Venice.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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