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Venice, the muse of filmmakers

Venice Festival
Grand Canal, famous for its appearance in 'Casino Royale'

nicogenin on Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

The close relationship between Venice and the art of filmmaking is due as much to the magic of its streets, the captivating backdrop to many a film, as to the prestigious Golden Lions.
Whenever a tourist sets foot on Venetian streets it is inevitable to be reminded of scenes from famous films or imagine what might one day be filmed there. The canals bring to mind speedboat chases, the labyrinthine streets provide the perfect parapets for action scenes, the bridges and gondolas, the epitomy of romantic settings.

With the first incursions into filmmaking in 1895, new filmmakers descended on the city to propose the Venetian sestieri (districts) as scenarios for their shoots. These were the first locations. In 1896, Alexandre Promio, a cameraman working with the Lumiére brothers, was sent by them to the Veneto capital to film what would be the first travelling shot in the history of film: he recorded life and the palaces along the Grand Canal from a gondola in a take lasting just over a minute.
The first major film event to be held in the city of canals was in 1932; the first Venice International Film Festival was promoted by the upper echelons of Italian film, under the direction of Luciano de Feo. What has since become a splendid international affair was, in that first year, only a screening of several films on the terrace of the Hotel Excelsior, on the Lido. The first to be shown was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Rouben Mamoulian. Also shown were It Happened One Night, by Frank Capra; The Champ, by King Vidor, and Frankenstein, by James Whale. The first edition was not competitive and no prizes were awarded. Acknowledgments were made by popular vote, declaring Nikolai Ekk for The Path to Life as best director, and Give Us Liberty by René Clair, best film.
Following the second edition in 1934, the festival won acclaim and had great international impact. In 1935 it became an annual event. The following years were difficult for the review because of the havoc caused by World War II. However, in 1946, the Venice Festival was held in the Palazzo del Cinema and, since then, the Golden Lions (for best picture) and Volpi Cups (best actors and actresses) have been awarded on this stage.
Venice has also appeared in a number of films of varying styles and eras. In the 50s came films like A Night in Venice, directed by Georg Wildhagen and Summertime, in which Katharine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi shared the screen.
More recently, Venice-based productions have focused on two legends of the big screen: James Bond and Indiana Jones. The current 007, Daniel Craig, ran, jumped, shot and loved his way along the Grand Canal in Casino Royale. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, director Steven Spielberg converted the Church of San Barnaba into a library. Woody Allen, such a lover of filming in the streets, also succumbed to the charms of Venice in Everyone Says I Love You.
Just as the compact cameras of tourists will continue to be enraptured by the city of Venice, so will filmmakers from around the globe be captivated by its beauty, magic and history.

Cameras have not Overlooked Marco Polo and Casanova

Two well-known Venetian figures, Marco Polo and Giacomo Casanova, have also had their lives re-enacted for the general public. The first was the subject of a 1982 television series that was filmed in Malamocco (an area of the Lido) and starred Ken Marshall in the title role; in 2014 he was featured in another drama centred on his battles with the Mongolian Empire. Casanova came to the big screen thanks to Federico Fellini, who adapted the 18th century author and philanthroper’s autobiography in 1976. The role was played by Donald Sutherland. Decades later, it was played by the late Heath Ledger in a new version about the Venetian beau.

Setting of Theatre and Novels

Not only filmmakers have been captivated by the beauty of Venice. Literature has also repeatedly set its work in the Veneto capital. From William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice in the 16th century, to the contemporary Donna Leon, whose Commissario Guido Brunetti fights crime in Venice in novels like Death in La Fenice and Acqua Alta. In the early 20th century, Thomas Mann also set his work Death in Venice in one of the city’s luxury hotels, a work which was later adapted for the cinema under the direction of Italian Luchino Visconti.

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