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From Venice, a plea to reopen movie theaters shut by virus

VENICE – Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has joined a chorus of voices at the Venice Film Festival urging the reopening of movie theaters and a return to cinema normality after coronavirus lockdowns, saying films are meant to be seen on the big screen, not at home.

Directors and actors alike have rejoiced at the return to the red carpet on the Lido and theater screenings — albeit in a modified way — after the pandemic shuttered cinemas and put film sets on hold around the globe.

“Even just getting ready for today was quite surreal and there was a sense of normality," gushed French actress Stacy Martin as she presented the in-competition film “Lovers" by director Nicole Garcia.

Venice organizers have prided themselves on pushing ahead with the in-person festival despite the cumbersome and costly anti-virus restrictions that include protective masks during all screenings, theaters at a half or one-third capacity and rigorous temperature checks and sanitization. They went ahead with the first major COVID-era film festival convinced they needed to chart a path forward for a film industry hard-hit by the lockdowns.

Almodovar, who premiered his short film “The Human Voice” on Thursday, said streaming platforms had played an “essential role” in keeping people entertained during months of virus-required confinement at home.

But he said they had also contributed to the “dangerous” phenomenon of people growing increasingly comfortable living, working and eating at home — a type of “imprisonment” that he said must be resisted.

“And the antidote is the cinema,” he said, describing going out, sitting next to strangers in a movie theater where “you find yourself crying or rejoicing with other people.”

“If I put my film on a platform like Netflix, then I somehow lose that contact and that meeting point with the spectator,” he said. “So you have to tell people to go to the cinema, to go to the theaters, because some things will only be discovered on the big screen, in the dark with people that we do not know.”

That said, it won’t be the same.

Daniele Luchetti’s family drama “Ties” received a sustained round of applause when it opened the festival on Wednesday night. But the Italian director said Thursday there was something off: Social distancing rules for the theater made viewers feel like they were in a “vacuum bubble” and dispersed the sound of the clapping at the end.

“I know very well how an audience reacts to a movie, both when they like and when they don’t like it,” Luchetti told The Associated Press after his film premiered. “This time the atmosphere was very unusual. Just the fact of not having a person on your side: I couldn’t turn and see a crowd of people either laughing or watching carefully.”

He said he heard the applause at the end, but said it was sparse, given every other seat was left empty. “It was an applause in a space with a different balance,” he said. But he conceded, “I believe we need to get used to this.”

Tilda Swinton, who stars in Almodovar's short and received a Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award, made the same point from the stage of the Lido's main theater, saying she was overwhelmed seeing the eyes and ears of the audience (though not their mouths because they were all covered in masks.)

“When I ask myself how I might adequately express my gratitude for this honor, words fail me,” she said. “But I think I can tell you something of what it means to be here with you tonight: What it means to be in a room with living creatures at a big screen. What it means to be about to see a film, in Venice.

“Pure joy,” she said.

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AP journalist Louise Dixon contributed.