Alberto Barbera is the longest-serving director of the Venice Film Festival, with 15 years under his belt. Many consider his return in 2011 to be the festival’s new golden age, as he has transformed it into a platform for acclaimed films like “Gravity,” “Birdman,” “La La Land,” and “The Shape of Water.” Barbera’s term is set to end next year, but he jokes that he would never turn down an offer to continue in his position.
Born and raised in the small town of Occhieppo Inferiore in Piedmont, Italy, Barbera’s love for cinema started at a young age. His parents left him in the local cinema when he was just four years old, and he was captivated by the fear and excitement of the films. His earliest memory is watching Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” when he was six. He was also a fan of Laurel and Hardy and watched numerous shorts. However, there was one war movie with an unforgettable ending that haunted him for years, until he finally discovered it was “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” almost 70 years later.
As a child, Barbera dreamt of becoming an actor, but later realized that being a director was more important. However, his father insisted that he study first before pursuing his dreams. Barbera went on to graduate and join the Alpine Corps before becoming a substitute teacher. By a stroke of luck, he was offered a job as a film critic for the Gazzetta del Popolo, which opened the door to many opportunities in the film industry. He eventually found himself at the Turin Film Festival, where he learned the ropes of festival organization and became the festival’s director.
Barbera acknowledges that he made a major mistake early on in his career as a festival director. He forgot to invite the executives from a major sponsor to the final evening of the festival, causing them to take offense and potentially withdraw their sponsorship. Despite this setback, Barbera was lucky enough to have the freedom to say no to compromises, both political and economic, throughout his career.
In 1998, the Biennale became a foundation, freeing it from government control. Barbera initially hesitated to accept the position as the director because of the Biennale’s reputation as an unmanageable machine. However, under his leadership, the Biennale flourished and grew financially. The structures were restored, and relationships with the American film industry were rebuilt. The turning point came when films like “Gravity” and “Birdman” selected for the festival went on to win Oscars.
Despite the challenges faced by the film industry, Barbera believes that talent and passion for cinema are essential. He mentions that this year’s festival had several films with potential for Oscar recognition, and he is confident that the Italian film industry is at a turning point, investing heavily in talent and becoming more competitive on the world stage.
When asked about two defining moments of his career, Barbera recalls his visit to Los Angeles in 1999 to secure a film for the festival. He was offered “Eyes Wide Shut” by Stanley Kubrick, who had planned to attend the festival. However, Kubrick passed away before the event, but Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman still came. Another defining moment for Barbera was the revival of the Venice Film Festival in 2011, when he returned as director and ushered in a new era of success.
Alberto Barbera’s tenure as the director of the Venice Film Festival has been marked by growth, success, and a revitalization of the festival. His ability to navigate the challenges of the industry and his passion for cinema have cemented his place in its history. As he looks to the future, Barbera remains excited about the potential of the film industry and the role of the festival in promoting and celebrating the art of cinema.