We had flown thousands of miles — traveled on boats, even — to see “Joker.” To be clear, last year’s Venice Film Festival promised journalists more than just the world premiere of that Todd Phillips supervillain origin story, then only an operatically pitched trailer. There would also be Brad Pitt in the space psychodrama “Ad Astra,” Noah Baumbach’s emotionally charged “Marriage Story,” and a new film by Hirokazu Kore-eda, the Japanese master who only a year earlier had made the devastating “Shoplifters.”
But trudging from the Lido’s oppressive beach heat into the cool of the Sala Grande theater for the morning screenings of “Joker,” we sensed a larger moment was at hand. Two hours later, a mysterious alchemy had occurred; you could hear it in the lusty applause mixed with a smattering of boos, in the patio debates happening over radioactive-orange Aperol spritzes. “Joker” was something you needed to argue about. That’s how quickly it transformed from a makeup-smeared interloper into a bona fide awards contender.
Provocation attends film festivals, and not just the dancing-clown variety. Festivals can serve as coronations, bestowing status or, even better, controversy. (Almost inevitably, “Joker” took home Venice’s top prize, the Golden Lion.) More valuably, they can channel the conversation toward worthier less-shiny objects. At a festival, you find yourself talking to strangers: in lobbies, shuttles, at bars, in snaking lines or seated next to you, as a way of sharing enthusiasm.
That undefinable component of a makeshift community — people coming together, sometimes grouchily, in the spirit of discovery — is what remains uncertain this year, as the annual fall showcases pivot mostly to online versions of themselves, making their films, postscreening Q. and A.s, and panels available to stream for those with special access. Venice, cautiously, will be going forward starting Sept. 2 with an on-site affair, its Hollywood contingent much diminished. The intimate Telluride festival, usually a secretly programmed Labor Day weekend event that generates early Oscar news, has been canceled. And with planners in Toronto and New York hoping to create safe, modestly scaled public events for their hybridized festivals this fall, is it too precious to call out what may be lost in translation?