Linda Herrick is the Arts and Books Editor at the NZ Herald.

Film Festival review: The Venice Syndrome

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A scene from the Film Festival movie, The Venice Syndrome.
A scene from the Film Festival movie, The Venice Syndrome.

It opens with the soothing sound of waves lapping at the edges of the Canale di San Marco and seagulls swooping along the Grand Canal. Then the reality of daily life in Venice is rudely revealed in The Venice Syndrome: hundreds of tourists crowded into Piazza San Marco and the main drag along the canal. But only during the day. By night, most of them have long gone, having "done" Venice, and the city is left near deserted until the next day's onslaught.

The impact of mass tourism - 21 million a year - in Venice, is alarming. This thoughtful documentary about the predicament plaguing the city and its long-suffering, dwindling population is both fascinating and bleak.

It's a complex situation. Twenty years ago, 200,000 people lived in Venice; today just 58,000. Young people leave to find jobs, for those who remain, rents and real estate prices are pushed up by foreigners or mainland speculators buying properties. Many elderly residents fear they will have to leave too, one way or another.

Visitors used to stay for a week or two; now they are known as "take-away tourists" - they arrive by the bus-load (one scene shows dozens of buses parked in the Piazzale Roma, a daily norm) and walk around for a few hours "not conscious of what they are experiencing".

They ignore the local businesses, such as the little cafes and bars that need their money so much. It's so bloody sad.

Even worse, much worse, are the enormous cruise liners that come into Venice's fragile waters. It's a shock to see these monsters manoeuvring into dock, dwarfing the buildings, churning up the lagoon, disturbing the residents.

The "screw-up" is not only environmental. Venetians make little money from cruise ships. The profits go to international corporations.

The city's services are closing down, such as its central post office, sold to the Benetton Group. The quality of architectural renovations is often poor. A boatman who has traversed Venice's waters all his life is forced to move to the mainland and drives a car.

The locals show a lot of humour and heart. There is also so much anger, directed particularly at the political apathy apparent in local and national Governments that have let Venice slide into the status of a neglected dormitory city. With regard to property prices, as one man says, "The City could intervene, but they leave it to the market forces." That sounds familiar.

The Venice Syndrome is a must-see for anyone planning to visit Venice. If you are thinking of dropping in for a few hours during a cruise, you may want to think again. Yet, disturbing as the film is, Venice still looks hauntingly beautiful.

The Venice Syndrome
Screening in the NZ International Film Festival

- NZ Herald

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