The new movie by Babel's Alejandro González Iñárritu kicks off the world's oldest festival this year, which will also screen the latest work from Warwick Thornton.
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25 Jul 2014 - 2:29 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:28 AM

The Venice Film Festival has scored a major coup by presenting Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dark comedy Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) for its opening night. Starring Michael Keaton and featuring Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis, the film follows Keaton’s washed up action hero attempting a comeback. Iñárritu and Watts had previously been on the Lido for the 2003 world premiere of 21 Grams, which garnered Watts a best actress Oscar nomination and Benicio del Toro a supporting nod. Awards are likely here as well.

After a stellar event last year with prominent early screenings of Tracks and Wolf Creek 2, there are, unfortunately, no Australian films on the Lido in 2014. Besides Watts, I can’t even find any Aussies among the casts in the program of 55 films.

There is, however, an Australian director, international festival regular Warwick Thornton (Samson and Delilah), who is one of nine directors in the omnibus film Words with Gods, a Mexico-USA co-production. It’s the first of four instalments in the groundbreaking Heartbeat of the World series focusing on religion, specifically as it relates to an individual's relationship with his/her god or gods... or the lack thereof. The other directors are Guillermo Arriaga, Emir Kusturica, Amos Gitai, Mira Nair, Hector Babenco, Bahman Ghobadi, Hideo Nakata and Álex de la Iglesia. Iglesia also has Messi, a documentary following Argentinian footballer Lionel Messi from his early life to international stardom, in the Venice Days section.

Of the 20 films in the competition, 19 are world premieres. New Zealand-born Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill is of huge interest as the story reteams the Gattaca director with Ethan Hawke, who stars with January Jones. Hawke plays a disillusioned Las Vegas-based fighter pilot turned drone pilot fighting the Taliban by remote control for 12 hours a day, after which he goes home to the suburbs and feuds with his wife and kids. The very busy Hawke, who plays the lead in MIFF opener Predestination, also stars for his Hamlet director Michael Almereyda in another contemporary US-set Shakespearean adaptation, Cymbeline, which screens in Venice’s Horizons sidebar and focuses on a battle between dirty cops and a drug-dealing biker gang.

In his Rome announcements, artistic director Alberto Barbera said many films in this year’s programme make reference to war. “Sadly we are living in a moment in which the spectre of war is rising dramatically again.”

Other competition entries include:
• Fatih Akin's The Cut (Germany), starring Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) as a man who becomes mute. Shot in Canada, Cuba, Jordan and Germany, the epic film apparently focuses on the evil in mankind.

Hungry Hearts (Saverio Costanzo, Italy). A dark, Brooklyn-set drama-romance about an extreme eating disorder, starring Adam Driver.

Manglehorn (David Gordon Green, USA). Al Pacino plays Angelo Manglehorn, a small town locksmith who never got over the love of his life and has been heartbroken for 40 years. He still writes her letters obsessively as he tries to find her, and in the meantime a beautiful new woman attempts to help him put the pieces of his heart back together. Also stars Holly Hunter, Chris Messina and Harmony Korine.

Note: Pacino does Venice double duty by also starring in Barry Levinson’s out-of-competition Philip Roth adaptation, The Humbling, which follows an aging actor as he has an affair with a young lesbian (Greta Gerwig). Manglehorn will screen the same day in a dedicated Al Pacino Day at the festival.
 
The French are strong again in competition:

• Abel Ferrara's Pasolini (France/Italy/Belgium) stars Willem Dafoe and chronicles the last day in the life of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the iconic Italian writer and director whose 1975 murder remains a mystery.

Far From Men (Loin des Hommes; David Oelhoffen, France). Set in Algeria in 1954, it follows two very different men (played by Viggo Mortensen and Reda Kateb) thrown together by a world in turmoil as they are forced to flee across the Atlas Mountains.

Three Hearts (France-Germany-Belgium). Benoit Jacquot’s 21st feature stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, Catherine Deneuve and her daughter Chiara Mastroianni, who replaced Léa Seydoux, the star of his previous hit, Farewell, My Queen, when she went off to make Saint Laurent.

La Rancon de la gloire (France). Xavier Beauvois tells the true tale of two broke men who hatched a scheme to kidnap Charles Chaplin’s coffin in Switzerland and extort money from his widow, Oona.
 
Sala Web
Following two successful years incorporating an online screening experience to the regular programming of the Venice Film Festival, the Biennale has announced that its Web Theatre initiative, known as Sala Web, will return this year for the 71st edition of the Mostra.

Sala Web will once more enable professionals and audiences both to screen selected titles from the comfort of their own computers, and from anywhere in the world. The Biennale has taken steps to make this year's Sala Web even more accessible and user friendly, most notably by extending the viewing window for each title to a period of five full days.

The Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August - 6 September. Visit the official website for more information.