Discover Venice’s Incredible Film History

Founded in 1932, the Venice Film Festival is the oldest in the world. Though it has always been prestigious, in recent years, it has increased its standing among the other film festival heavy hitters by premiering a number of high-profile Hollywood films, including Gravity, Birdman, Spotlight and La La Land, all of which went on to be big Oscar winners.

Not only is the Venice Film Festival one of the most important in the calendar and a key showcase for future Hollywood hits, but it’s also one of the most glamorous events on the international film festival calendar, attracting all manner of familiar stars, who can often be spotted disembarking from boats on the Lido’s dock and working the red carpet.

And unlike say Cannes, Venice’s film festival is a relatively democratic affair. You don’t have to be an A-lister to attend the screenings: there are public tickets available online and at box offices at the cinema village. The Festival will be running between the 30th August and the 9th of September should you find yourself in the iconic city. The screenings take place in the imposing Palais de Cinema and other venues on the Lido, a narrow, beach-bordered island that separates the lagoon from the sea. For post-screening chats or star-spotting, try Hotel Excelsior, where many of the celebrity visitors stay, and the Bauer Hotel Terrace where jury members and other film buffs meet to discuss and dissect the films they’ve seen.

If you’re a film devotee, you won’t want to constrain yourself to the festival itself. Few cities are quite as cinematic as Venice. Its grand palazzo, crumbling churches, murky back canals and darkened corridor-like lanes possess an alluring screen-ready quality and it’s not hard to see why so many directors have chosen to use the Floating City as their de facto film set. But in case you don’t know Don’t Look Now from Death in Venice, we’ve devised a quick guide of the most important Venice-set films to get you up to speed. 

Pigeons on St Marks Square

The Pigeons on St Marks Square are practically domesticated, they'll gladly perch on your hands for some food.

Katharine Hepburn in Summertime (1955)

This 1955 film, starring Katharine Hepburn, tells the story of a bittersweet romance between a middle-aged American tourist and a handsome Italian antique merchant.  It is as much a love letter to the city and a showcase of its intoxicating influence, as it is a tale of the two main characters’ affair, with lavish backdrops of the pigeon-filled St. Mark’s Square, gondolas bussing down canals and no shortage of recognizable sites visible in the film. Sir David Lean, the English director behind the feature, who would later go on to make such classics as Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, found himself so enamored with Venice, he later made it his second home. And according to a 1956 report from the New York Times, he even managed to inspire more tourists to come to Venice with his beautiful portrayal of the city.

Fog in Venice

A little fog and this picture perfect city becomes an excellent set for a scary movie!

Don’t Look Now (1973)

This haunting 1973 horror by Nicolas Roeg, which follows a couple who have relocated to Venice following the tragic death of their daughter, makes great use of Venice’s darkened, labyrinthine streets and foggy footbridges. After seeing it, it’s hard to shake the vision of that small, red-coated figure lurking in the shadowy corners, and even harder to explore Venice by night without the film coming to mind. Locations worth seeking out include the off-the-beaten-path Chiesa di San Nicolò dei Mendicoli, which Donald Sutherland’s character is tasked with restoring (and which has, in real life, been beautifully restored). The hotel the leading couple stay in is actually a combination of two hotels: the exteriors are of Hotel Gabrielli Sandwirth near the Venetian Arsenale, while the interior shots were filmed in the Bauer Hotel, just west of St. Mark’s Square. 

James Bond in Casino Royale (2006)

Though it’s not the first Bond film to film in Venice – 1963’s From Russia with Love and 1979’s Moonraker both feature the Floating City – Casino Royale’s Venice scenes are arguably the most memorable. During the final moments of the film, Bond manages to take down a palazzo on the Grand Canal by punctuating the floating piers upon which is stands. While the palazzo itself is a CGI invention, the buildings on either side of it are real and can be found in the Cannaregio district not far from Rialto Bridge. 

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Though the majority of the action takes place around Ischia, Naples and Rome, Venice does make a key appearance in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 classic. The Floating City was used for the latter moments of the film, when Tom Ripley (as played by Matt Damon) finds himself a new lavish apartment in which to stay. The apartment he stayed in was actually an amalgamation of two separate buildings: Ca’Sagredo, which is now a luxury hotel, and the 13th-century Ca' da Mosto palazzo. Another Venetian hotel, the Grand Canal-facing Europa e Regina, which occupies not one but a handful of former 17th-century palazzos, also featured in the film as the spot where Tom meets Dickie’s father. 

Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Up there with Casino Royale for the title of the most action-packed Venice scenes to have ever featured on the big screen, the third instalment in the Indiana Jones franchise sees the titular hero descend into the Venetian catacombs. In reality, there is no such thing – Venice stands on long oak and pine piles in the Venetian Lagoon, making a subterranean network like this impossible. You can, however, track down the 18th-century Church of San Barnaba in the Dorsoduro neighborhood. The church’s façade featured in the film as the library where Indiana makes a pivotal discovery. The square outside the church, Campo de San Barnaba, also made an appearance. 

Death in Venice (1971)

Much of the action in this tragic 1971 arthouse drama takes place on the Venice Lido, the very same sliver of beach-fringed land southeast of the main island where the Venice Film Festival is held. The most eye-catching building to feature in the film was the Grand Hotel Des Bains, a turn-of-the-century luxury hotel. Originally built to draw in moneyed tourists, it soon established itself as the place to stay on the Lido. The hotel closed in 2010 and is now abandoned, but you can still view the Gothic structure from outside and hang about on the sands where the character of Aschenbach – spoiler alert! – took his final breath. 

Want to discover the Venice of the movies? See our Venice tours, which will lead you to some of the most recognizable big-screen sights in the city.  

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