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alone in crowded rooms (and boats) [A&C]

my solo trip to the venice film festival

Five days after I drove off the Universal Studios lot in 100-degree heat for the last time this summer, I flew to Europe for my semester abroad. My internship at Amblin Entertainment felt like a distant memory by the time my Spanish immersion program began two weeks later in Barcelona. After my first five days in Spain, I found myself again on a plane, this time headed to La Biennale di Venezia for the premiere of Amblin’s newest Netflix film, Maestro.

When the Venice premiere was announced in July, I realized that I could feasibly get to Italy for the weekend. I knew it would be a solo trip, but it was possible that some people I knew from work would also attend. At the time, the WGA writers’ strike and SAG-AFTRA actors’ strike were well under way but still shy of the 100-day mark, the day the 2023 strike would surpass the length of the previous WGA strike in 2007. As an aspiring writer, I felt a twinge of guilt and hypocrisy crossing the picket line every day, but the majority of employees in my office and I were not members of either union. Amblin, like most production companies, had movies in development and post-production. While it was a somewhat slow summer to be an intern, there was still plenty to do. 


The optimistic buzz on the Hollywood streets was that the strikes would hopefully end before Labor Day, thereby allowing writers and actors to return to work with fair pay. Millions of moviegoers across the world showed up in droves to this summer’s blockbuster bonanza, Barbenheimer, while thousands of writers and actors continued to protest and bargain with the AMPTP about fair wages and AI impact.

Meanwhile, I applied for a student pass to the Venice Film Festival and a few weeks later began receiving a barrage of Italian email correspondence, an implicit invitation to attend. By the time the first weekend of September rolled around, it was clear that the end of the strikes was nowhere in sight. This meant continued hardships for people still picketing day in and day out in L.A. It also meant that most American talent involved in the movies premiering at Venice would not appear on the red carpet, a stark departure from the 79 festivals prior. My boss, one of Maestro’s producers, w0uld not be in attendance. Neither would Bradley Cooper, the film’s writer, director, and star, who glamorously descended a boat with Lady Gaga at the 2018 Venice Film Festival for the premiere of his directorial debut, A Star is Born.

The red carpet looked different: It was flooded with mostly Italian and European stars. Rather than Maestro’s cast and the majority of its crew attending the premiere, Leonard Bernstein’s children graced the red carpet to pay homage to the biopic about their late parents. A select few crewmembers were able to be in attendance, like the prosthetic makeup designer, costume designer, and casting director. A handful of movies, among them Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, obtained a SAG-AFTRA waiver to promote their films during the strike and had their full casts on site. 

While actors conversed over Campari spritzes outside the Hotel Excelsior and festival-goers packed into theaters together, I meandered through the alleys and canals I hadn’t explored since my eighth-grade spring break trip to Italy. Venice was my first weekend trip of my four-month-long journey abroad and my first time traveling alone; by chance, I found myself in a bed-and-breakfast. The space did not quite match the glamorous photos: Used towels lay damp in the tiny bathroom, and the rusted mirror hanging outside the entrance to my room was undeniably haunted. I vowed to spend as little time in my hotel room as possible, for (legitimate) fear of the spirits I might encounter there.

After a socially overstimulating first week of my abroad program—a first-year orientation week redux of sorts—a weekend alone turned out to be exactly what I needed to recharge. Luckily, I had no plans other than attending the screenings I had tickets for and stuffing myself with pasta and gelato.


Several students from my program in Barcelona marveled that I was choosing to spend my first weekend on a solo trip. When I explained how my journey to Venice came to be, I watched their eyes grow wide with intrigue, imagining me dressed in a ballgown and schmoozing with celebrities at ostentatious and exclusive parties. In reality, I wore oversized jeans, talked to basically no one, and was in bed each night by midnight.

Venice, with its winding canals, is an unusual place to host a film festival of this caliber and size, despite being the home of the internationally acclaimed La Biennale arts center. In fact, the festival takes place on the Lido, an island of Venice slightly removed from the main “city center” where most tourists stay. Throughout the day, overloaded water taxis shuttled festival guests packed like sardines to and from the island where they watched films in newly constructed (and quickly destroyed) auditoriums, save for the permanent Sala Grande theater. The half-sinking boats packed full of people were oddly reminiscent of Coachella shuttle buses, the temporary screening rooms akin to different musical stages.

On my first night, I attended a double-feature of Poor Things and Finalmente L’Alba. Yorgos Lanthimos ultimately took home the Golden Lion, the festival’s highest award, for Poor Things, and I understood why it won. The film tells the story of an unconventional scientist (Willem Dafoe) bringing a curious young woman (Emma Stone) back to life. She travels the world with a troubled lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) and discovers her life’s purpose as an advocate for equality and women’s liberation, in a world that in certain ways resembles our own, but in most is far more fantastical. 

I have never seen a movie so simultaneously inventive, erotic, creepy, and entertaining. I laughed out loud, I squirmed in my chair, and I truly felt immersed inside the surrealist universe Lanthimos so artfully created. “There are no words to describe the experience of watching Emma Stone orgasm 27 times and Willem Dafoe slice human brains with a knife in front of a festival audience of 1,700 people,” I wrote in a Letterboxd review. I loved observing the reactions of the many hundreds of other spectators in the room. I rarely go to the movies alone, but doing so all weekend allowed me to witness people’s firsthand responses, as opposed to just conversing with whomever I might have gone with to the theater. 

I did not love every movie I saw. The film that followed Poor Things was an Italian period drama that follows an aspiring actress (Rebecca Antonaci) throughout one adventurous and intense night in Rome. Lily James and Rachel Sennott made jarring appearances that took me out of 1950s Italy, none of the characters’ motivations made sense, and many people in the theater left halfway through: a statement providing stark contrast to the over 10-minute-long standing ovations given to films that were well-received. 

What I came to see (Maestro) was well worth the trip. The film was nearly finished in post-production by the time I started my internship at Amblin, which enabled me to take a look at production materials and read the version of the script they shot on set. There were a couple of scenes I read that I was sad to see didn’t make the final cut, but seeing the script come to life through such vibrant and entrancing cinematography was inspiring. The story is poignant, the plot deeply personal, and the score beautifully integrated without detracting from any other elements of Leonard Bernstein’s complex life. 

Rather than focusing solely on Bernstein’s remarkable career in music, screenwriters Josh Singer and Bradley Cooper shone an equal spotlight on the beautiful marriage and children Bernstein shared with Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), while simultaneously navigating Bernstein’s identity as a closeted gay man. Bradley Cooper did an exceptional job of embodying Bernstein, but Carey Mulligan’s acting blew him out of the water. I truly felt her bouts of uncertainty and rage at being in love with someone who has not yet figured out their own identity. 

I loved witnessing the epic standing ovation as the credits rolled; standing and clapping alongside a room full of strangers for over five minutes straight was one of the few times I felt I was part of something bigger than just spectating the whole event by myself. I love how the measure of a good movie at a film festival is the precise number of minutes the standing ovation lasts. The experience validates your personal interpretation of what you just watched through everyone else’s opinions. 

It was surreal to recognize the names of so many people I worked with in the credits and gave me chills to watch them be rewarded for all of the time, energy, and passion I know they put into the project. As a Hollywood native, I’ve always paid attention to the credits of everything I watch, recognizing how many people are involved in bringing a project to life. At the same time, however, the strikes did seem to be a bit of an elephant in the room, as I witnessed the glamor of the festival and thought about how many people were struggling to make ends meet due to the direct and indirect impact of the shutdown.

This weekend was filled with contradictions, some of them more uncomfortable to reckon with than others, but all of them were experiences that pushed me out of my comfort zone. Off I went each morning, a cappuccino trembling in my hand as I clutched the railing of the water taxi, eagerly awaiting my afternoon surrounded by thousands of cinephiles from around the world, yet feeling at peace talking to almost no one.

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