Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, a recession-era road trip drama starring Frances McDormand, won the Golden Lion for best film on Saturday at a slimmed-down Venice film festival, which was held against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic.

Zhao and McDormand appeared by video from the United States to accept the award, as en virus-related travel restrictions made reaching the Lido in the Italian lagoon city difficult if not impossible for many Hollywood filmmakers and actors.

“Thank you so much for letting us come to your festival in this weird, weird world and way!” McDormand told the masked audience as the Italian marketing team for the film actually accepted the award. “But we’re really glad you let us come! And we’ll see you down the road!”

A favourite going into the awards season, Nomadland is screening at all the major autumn film festivals in a pandemic-forged alliance involving the Venice, Toronto, New York and Telluride festivals.

British actor Vanessa Kirby won best lead actress for Pieces of a Woman, a harrowing drama about the emotional fallout on a couple after their baby dies during a home birth. Italy’s Pierfrancesco Fabino won best lead actor for Padrenostro (Our Father), an Italian coming-of-age story that takes place after a terrorist attack in the 1970s. Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa won the Silver Lion for best director for Wife of a Spy, while the Silver Lion grand jury prize went to Mexico’s Michel Franco for his dystopian drama New Order.

Frances McDormand in Nomadland, directed bu Chloe Zhao.
Frances McDormand in Nomadland, directed bu Chloe Zhao. Photograph: Courtesy of SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES/AP

The Russian film Dear Comrades!, about a 1960s era massacre in the former Soviet Union, won a special jury prize while Chaitanya Tamhane won best screenplay for The Disciple, about an Indian man’s pursuit to be a classical musician.

That the 10-day Venice festival took place at all was something of a miracle, given that northern Italy in late February became ground zero for Europe’s coronavirus outbreak. The Cannes Film Festival was cancelled and other big international festivals in Toronto and New York opted to go mostly online.

But after Italy tamed its infections with a strict 10-week lockdown, Venice decided to go ahead, albeit under safety protocols that would have previously been unthinkable for a festival that has prided itself on spectacular visuals and glamorous clientele. Face masks were required indoors and out. Reservations for all were required in advance, with theatre capacity set at less than half. The public was barred from the red carpet and paparazzi, who would normally chase after stars in rented boats, were given socially distanced positions on land.

Vanessa Kirby with the best actress for Pieces of a Woman.
Vanessa Kirby with the best actress for Pieces of a Woman. Photograph: Ettore Ferrari/EPA

While it’s too soon to say if the measures worked, there were no immediate reports of infections among festivalgoers and compliance with mask mandates and social distancing appeared to be high. “We were a little bit worried at the beginning, of course,” said festival director Alberto Barbera. “We knew that we had a very strict plan of safety measures and we were pretty sure about that, but you never know.”

Hong Kong director Ann Hui almost didn’t make it after she couldn’t get on her flight because of virus border restrictions. In the end, she arrived to collect her Golden Lion lifetime achievement award and to see her out-of-competition film Love After Love make its world premiere.

“We were lucky to receive a lot of submissions from all over the world, and apart from a few missing titles from the Hollywood major film studios, most of the countries are represented in Venice and the quality of the lineup is really very high,” said festival director Barbera.


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