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Venice Film Fest is 86 today: Here are the best films from the event

It’s a big ole day for cinema, as the Venice Film Festival turns 86 today. As the Italian corner of the so-called Big Three – alongside Cannes and Berlinale – the prestigious event is the oldest film festival in the world, boasting a lineup filled with classic and fresh talent and a combination of location and tradition that makes it a popular destination for the film industry’s elite.

The first edition of the Venice Film Festival was launched on this very day back in 1932. To mark this significant moment in cinematic history, here are ten of the best films to have won the event’s top prize: The Golden Lion.

The Return (2003)

Director: Andrej Zvjagincev

Russian director Zvjagincev debuted this film to a surprised audience at the Venice Film Festival in 2003, who were impressed with its highly poetic and timeless feel. Set in the Russian wilderness, The Return follows two brothers (Vladimir Garin and Ivan Dobronravov) as they face a range of new, conflicting emotions when their father – a man they know only through a single photograph – comes into their lives.

Pietà (2012)

Director: Kim Ki-duk

South Korean director Ki-Duk’s 2012 crime drama took home the gold for its engaging and wickedly twisted tale of crime and punishment. Not your usual trip within the genre, Pietà sees a loan shark (Lee Jung-jin) who is forced to reconsider his violent lifestyle after the arrival of a mysterious woman (Cho Min-soo) claiming to be his long-lost mother. Ultimately, it’s a tale of two tortured characters forced to face up to their demons of the past.

The Way We Laughed (1998)

Director: Gianni Amelio

Amelio directed this powerful film about two brothers – Giovanni (Enrico Lo Verso) and Pietro (Francesco Giuffrida) – whose goals and ideals drift apart over the course of seven years, each of which is represented by a single day. Their relationship proves so passionate, it is doomed to end in tragedy. And as the corruption of Turin begins to sink its hooks into Pietro, their fates take a dangerous turn.

Three Colours: Blue (1993)

Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski

The first in a trilogy of films dedicated to the three colors of the French flag, Three Colors: Blue centers on Julie (Juliette Binoche) – a woman consumed by grief having survived her husband and daughter in a tragic car crash, who isolates herself in a bid to deal with her pain. The overriding theme of Kieslowski’s work is that of freedom, as its central character attempts to free herself from the shackles of her tragic past.

First Name: Carmen (1983)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

First Name: Carmen is the second film in Goddard’s “trilogy of the sublime”, telling the parallel stories of a quartet rehearsing Beethoven and a group of young people robbing a bank, supposedly to get the funds to make a film. Comprising a number of themes within its narrative, the film is a meditation on the difficulties of youth in the 80s, the relationship between filmmaking and funding, and how to capture the human body on camera.

Au Revoir les Enfants (1987)

Director: Louis Malle

Taking home the gold as well as a reputation as one of his greatest works is Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants – a compelling retelling of events that occured in the filmmaker’s childhood, about a French boarding school student named Julien (Gaspard Manesse) forming a friendship with newcomer Jean (Raphael Fejto), who he discovers is Jewish and being protected from the Gestapo.

Offering glimmers of hope in one of the darkest moments in world history, Au Revoir les Enfants is at once a beautiful musing on a bygone era as well as a stark reminder of the atrocities of war.

Belle de Jour (1967)

Director: Luis Bunuel

Winner of the Golden Lion award at the 1967 Venice Film Festival and one of Bunel’s most notorious films, Belle de Jour stars none other than Catherine Deneuve as a prudish young housewife who decides to spend her midweek afternoons as a prostitute.

As Taste of Cinema wrote in its review of the film, “human sexuality, irrationality, and the emergence of the unconscious; these were controversial issues which greatly contributed to the notoriety of the film.”

Aparajito (1956)

Director: Satyajit Ray

Ray’s Aparajito was a significant driver of modern Indian cinema, mixing traditional themes from the country with European avant-garde cinema. The film itself follows a boy named Apu (Pinaki Sengupta) who leaves home to study in Calcutta, while his mother must face a life alone. It’s an emotive study on a region that was dealing with major changes and how this affected the country’s families living through societal adjustments.   

The Southerner (1945)

Director: Jean Renoir

The first film to ever win the grand prize at the Venice Film Festival all the way back in 1945, Renoir’s black & white rural drama sees Sam Tucker (Zachary Scott) – a Texan farmer who aspires to run his own farm and create a better life for his family.

A truly celebrated marker in cinematic history, Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr wrote in his review of the film: “Jean Renoir’s 1945 examination of dirt farmers in the American south is probably his finest Hollywood film, which is to say a masterpiece.”

The Shape of Water (2017)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Last but by no means least, del Toro took home the gold last year with his otherworldly fairytale, starring Sally Hawkins as an isolated cleaning lady whose life is forever changed when she stumbles upon a classified experiment. Set against the backdrop of Cold War era America, The Shape of Water incorporates the thrills (and creatures) of a classic monster flick while also echoing traits of a dark film noir.

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