From Benigni’s emotional speech to Audrey Diwan taking home the first prize with “L’événement,” and Paolo Sorrentino winning the Silver Lion for “The Hand of God,” here are the highlights of this year’s Mostra del Cinema di Venezia

Words by: Gilda Bruno

The 78th Edition of Venice International Film Festival has just come to an end but what were the juiciest moments on the Lido? Running between September 1—September 11, the Venice-based celebration of world cinema saw the return of global celebrities — from Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal and Dune’s superstars Timotheé Chalamet and Zendaya Stoermer Coleman all the way to Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez (aka the come-back of Bennifer) — to Italy’s most romantic destination for a ten-day marathon of motion picture storytelling.

Roberto Benigni receives Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement

With a competition jury of all respect, including cinema personalities such as Academy winners Bong Joon-ho (President) and Chloé Zhao alongside Saverio Costanzo, Alexander Nanau, Virginie EfiraCynthia Erivo, and Sarah Gadon, this year’s edition was kickstarted by a well-deserved homage to actor, comedian, and director Roberto Benigni, who was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement.

“Right from his debut, marked by his innovative and irreverent approach to rules and traditions, Roberto Benigni stands out in the panorama of the Italian performing arts as an unprecedented and unequaled figure of reference,” Alberto Barbera, Director of the 78th Edition of the Mostra del Cinema di Venezia, commented in a statement.

“Juggling his appearances on theatrical stages, movie sets, and television studios, each time with surprising results, he shines in all of them thanks to his exuberance and impetuosity, his generous way with the public, and the passionate joyfulness that is perhaps the most original hallmark of his opus.”

I cannot fail to dedicate the career Lion to Nicoletta, said Benigni at the opening of the world’s oldest film festival as he received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, which he dedicated to his life companion and colleague Nicoletta Braschi.

Its hers. We’ve done everything together for 40 years. How many films have we worked together on? Is it even possible to measure time in films? I only know one way to measure time: with you or without you,” the actor, comedian, and filmmaker commented in an emotional acceptance speech on September 1. Ill take the tail but the wings are yours, he then added to his wife in a moment that went viral only a few seconds after.

Audrey Diwan’s L’événement wins Golden Lion 

L’événement, or Happening, was the film awarded Venice Film Festival’s most coveted prize, the Golden Lion. Directed by French film director Audrey Diwan, the feature film tells the story of a young woman struggling to terminate a pregnancy in 1960s France — a resolution that could lead to conviction or death — in order to pursue her studies. Portrayed by French-Romanian actress Anamaria Vartolomei, whose performance was described as “career-elevating,” Anne, the leading character, will find herself fighting against the public stigma as well as the physical and psychological pain experienced by those forced to seek for clandestine abortion.

“I did this movie with anger, with desire, with my belly, my guts, my heart, and my head,” Diwan, member of Collectif 50/50, a French NGO promoting equality between men and women in the film industry, said in her acceptance speech on a historical evening for all women directors. Regarding the reasons that persuaded her to turn Annie Ernaux’s novel L’événement into a film she commented:

“What is the fate of a young woman struggling with a clandestine abortion? We can only try to guess the answer. When working on this adaptation, I tried to find a way to capture the physical nature of this experience, to take into account the bodily dimension of this journey. My hope is that the experience will transcend the temporal context of history and gender barriers. The fate of the young women who have had to resort to this type of operation is risky, unbearable. All I did was look for the simplicity of the gestures, the essence that could convey it.”

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God wins Silver Lion

Academy Award winner Paolo Sorrentino and his semi-autobiographical The Hand of God came in second, yet that of the beloved Italian director was anything but a defeat, as also proved during his poignant acceptance speech. “You’ll have to be patient because I feel quite overwhelmed at the moment,” he said right after walking onto the stage to receive the prize. “The day of my parents’ funeral, the school principal only allowed four of my classmates to attend the ceremony. I was incredibly disappointed, but it doesn’t matter anymore because today the whole class has come, and that class is you. Thank you.”

Featuring Italian legend Toni Servillo in the role of the director’s father (portrayed, in the film, by the fictional character Saverio Schisa) alongside Sorrentino’s alter ego Fabietto Schisa (played by Filippo Scotti, winner of the Marcello Mastroianni Award for best emerging actor) and a handful of talented personalities, The Hand of God is a tender look at the filmmaker’s childhood, brutally disrupted by a carbon monoxide leak that led to the death of both of his parents when he was only 16. But, as Sorrentino also mentioned when collecting the prize, the film is not a sad story; instead, it’s a story of “family, heroes, and hope.”

“The Hand of God is a coming-of-age story that aims, stylistically, at avoiding the traps of conventional autobiographies: hyperbole, victimhood, pity, compassion, and indulgence in pain, through a simple, sparse and essential staging as well as neutral and sober music and photography,” Sorrentino said about his latest work on the Mostra’s website. “The camera takes a step back to talk about the life of those years, as I remember them, as I lived them and felt them. Simply put, this is a film about sensitivity. And hovering above everything, so close yet so far, is Maradona; that ghostly idol, five feet tall, who seemed to support everyone’s life in Naples, or at least mine.”

Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog) wins Best Director

Just like we pointed out in our review of the 93rd Academy Awards, after decades away from the spotlight, women are finally taking over the cinema industry getting hold of some of the most prestigious prizes at stake.

If there’s anything we learned from the 78th Edition of Venice International Film Festival is that, within this context, its Lions are no exception. In fact, this year’s Silver Lion Award for Best Director went to New Zealand-born Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog: an intricate Western starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons as Phil and George Burbank, the owners of the biggest ranch in 1920s Montana valley, and tension rises between the two as a result of Phil’s ‘unacceptable’ marriage with a local widow (Kirsten Dunst). 

Campion, whose feature film — based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage — received a four-minute-long standing ovation, is the second woman to have ever been recognised with such a prize since its establishment in 1990, only preceded by Shirin Neshat in 2009 for Women Without Men. Being fascinated by an extraordinary Thomas Savage novel was pure joy, but I had never thought of making a film out of it, especially given its many male characters, and the deeply masculine themes tackled in the story,recounted the director on the website of the Venice Biennale.

“I began wondering which director the author, with his ambiguous masculinity, would have wanted and, little by little, I felt as if he was laying his hand on my shoulder, leaning towards me, and saying: ‘A madwoman who has come to love this story? Yes, that would be perfect.’ I put everything I had into Savages great tale, I was won over by it. In Phil, I felt the lover and the tremendous loneliness of him. I got the importance and strength of each individual protagonist, and the way each one of them reveals themselves in the end. I am honoured to share this film with real viewers, in a real cinema.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter wins Best Screenplay Award

What can we say if not that it was a thrilling directorial debut for Maggie Gyllenhaal and her The Lost Daughter? Inspired by Elena Ferrante’s novel La figlia oscura (2006), the film follows the life of a middle-aged woman on vacation on a Greek island as she attempts to find a balance between career and motherhood. An independent project that took shape over several COVID-19 lockdowns, The Lost Daughter cast includes Olivia ColmanJessie Buckley, and Dakota Johnson.

“I started reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, such as My Brilliant Friend, and I just felt that I had never read anything like them before,” explained Gyllenhaal when asked about the reasons that made her want to turn this book into a film.

“She was saying out loud, in those books, truthful things about being a woman in the world that I had just never heard expressed, and it kind of scared me, because some of the things she was talking about were very dark, and I related to them. But it also really comforted me to think, ‘OK, somebody else is feeling this, somebody else is writing and thinking about this,’ and I thought how dangerous and exciting it would have been to recreate experiences like that. Not for myself, alone in my room right before going to bed, but for a room full of people, in a movie theater, for those sitting next to their daughters, mothers, and husbands to feel something very truthful being said out loud.”

Penelope Cruz wins Best Actress Award for Almodovar’s Madres Paralelas 

Confirming the gender theme and female-oriented gaze that characterised most of the titles in competition at this year’s Mostra del Cinema di Venezia, Madres Paralelas or Parallel Mothers, the latest project by veteran cinema auteur Pedro Almodovar, surprised the audience taking on a more political stance than expected. The film explores the horrors of 1930s Spanish Civil War as seen through the stories of two single mothers, Janis (Penelope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit), who come to share a maternity ward. For this performance, Almodovar’s long-time muse Penelope Cruz, who described the director as her safety net in a press conference ahead of the film premiere, was awarded the Best Actress prize. 

Thanks once again for trusting me, for inspiring me every day with your search for truth, outside and inside, Cruz said during her acceptance speech for the award, which she dedicated to Almodovar himself.