Midway through the 2013 Locarno Festival, celebrated Georgian director Otar Iosseliani made headlines by exposing a normally veiled aspect of the festival circuit. Iosseliani was in the scenic Italian-Swiss lake town to collect a Golden Leopard career honour and used the ceremony to sharply criticise the competing festivals in Venice and Cannes. After reminding those present of the Venice festival’s fascist origins (under Benito Mussolini), he declared that “Cannes sold its soul to the major studios a long time ago,” and contrasted to it Locarno: “only Locarno remains dedicated to arthouse cinema and intellectual reflection… it is only Locarno that is willing to take risks to defend artistic films.” True or not, Iosseliani’s comments point to the intense jockeying among top festivals to define and distinguish themselves amid a crowded festival calendar. Although Locarno is, like those better known festivals, officially an A-level festival – it is usually seen as Europe’s fourth most important festival beyond those two as well as Berlin – it has indeed staked its claim to altogether different cinematic fare, namely, the discovery of young and rising talent rather than merely reaffirming the global film elite, be they commercial or art. The Locarno risks to which Iosseliani was pointing were, for the most part, affirmed by this year’s award winners, a mixture of challenging features and revelatory nonfiction films that have little commercial potential but will likely be the talk of the festival circuit throughout fall and winter. Many of these award winners from the Festival’s main competition section, both features and nonfiction, focus in fascinating, and often graphic, ways on morphing bodies to register and ruminate on rapid historical transformation.
Locarno’s unapologetically art cinema approach was put to particular test this year because of last year’s abrupt resignation of Olivier Père as artistic director of the festival. Père’s three-year tenure has been regarded as a very successful one, having raised the profile of the festival globally with more prominent visitors, more international press coverage, and a number of well-timed discoveries (like Monsieur Lazhar, Lore or, more in the high art vein, Leviathan). Père was replaced this year by Italian film programmer and historian Carlo Chatrian, who declared early he would maintain the festival’s reaffirmed commitment to art-cinema auteurs, while extending Père’s more international approach. Iosseliani’s award certainly served in this vein, as did the Leopard of Honor award given to Werner Herzog (someone similarly not afraid to mock the mainstream of features or the dominant forms of documentaries, with their merely “accountants’ truths”). Career acting honours went similarly to darlings of that least Hollywood of Hollywood eras, the late 1960s and early 1970s, to Faye Dunaway and Jacqueline Bisset. Despite its anti-mainstream poses, however, the festival does also have to cater to the tens of thousands of tourists from northern Europe in the summer resort town, and in this vein handed the long-time genre-star Christopher Lee a career Leopard and offered the European premieres of films like (former Locarno award winner) Baltasar Kormákur’s 2 Guns (with Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg) and We’re the Millers (with Jennifer Aniston, Jason Sudeikis, and Ed Helms).
If many of the award winning films this year register historical change directly on the body, that history so changed might be our own time-space compressing moment or, as in the winner of the Golden Leopard, the historical past. As noted above, Locarno prides itself on having discovered and/or promoted directors at the early stages of emphatically auteurist careers (like Rossellini, Antonioni, Kubrick, Leigh, more recently Jarmusch, Denis, and Panahi), and this year’s Golden Leopard went to Albert Serra, whose film, Historia de la meva mort (The History of My Death) has little chance of commercial success, but whose unusual mix of historical drama and comedy, both low and high, proves indelible. Low comedy comes, for example, when an aging, cheerfully cackling Casanova shatters a window while thrusting away at a young woman; high comedy when Casanova’s pathetically stale seductions are succeeded by a low affect, plainly clad, weirdly dour Dracula, largely due to the revolt of their shared victims. Dracula looks more like a detached monk than a suave seducer, a telling transformation for a film exploring the undersides of Enlightenment rationality and the various forms rebellions (sensual, cultish) against it. The film seems calculated to skewer (among other things) one of the few European genres to enjoy success in global cinema, the historical costume drama or “heritage” film, as Andrew Higson has dubbed it. From the Merchant Ivory films to Downtown Abbey, many European media products package and market the historical past in studied costumes, well-appointed sets, even classical acting. Serra’s History of My Death wreaks havoc with all these aspects of a constructed, fantasised pasts: by crashing (rather King-Kong-vs-Godzilla like) one historical figure shrouded in legend (Casanova) with one completely mythical (Dracula), Serra show how historical tales are always matters of projection and construction. In this heritage-critical vein, instead of lovely manor houses or gleaming palaces, History of My Death quickly moves to an impoverished, austere setting in the southern Carpathians; Casanova’s ornate waistcoats and bejeweled fingers look ridiculously out of place, as does the thick cake of make-up on his grizzled face. And then, of course, there is Dracula, reminding also of the fantastical projection onto the past in cinema’s still most popular heritage hero.
Serra was only one of a number of auteurs at the festival to defy and recast familiar genres with ghostly transformations of the protagonist’s body, and, in many of these films, such corporeal transformations capture transitional moments in contemporary history. For his work in Daniel and Diego Vidal’s El Mudo (The Mute), Fernando Bacillio won the festival’s best actor award: he plays a low-level judge, Constantino Zegarra, largely through a remarkably long face and compact body, both of which are used for devastating deadpan visual jokes throughout. In this wry parody of a legal thriller, Judge Zegarra has scrupulously worked his way from the Peruvian provinces to Lima through committed fairness and dogged integrity. But, shortly after rejecting a bribe at the opening of the film, he becomes an increasingly spectral presence when he, sitting in his car, is abruptly shot in the neck and loses his ability to speak. Those around Judge Zegarra, including his daughter, his wife and his lover, start to lose interest in him as his silence lingers and his presence fades, a Kafkaesque attenuation of person even as he is, post-metamorphosis, corporeally omnipresent. As in Serra’s History of My Death, the limits of the protagonist’s fading body register historical change around him, here the growing graft and corruption of contemporary Lima. Given his mindfulness of his mother’s legal legacy – likewise a judge, she appears literally as a ghost late in the film – Zegarra’s commitment to higher ideals seems increasingly parodied in his meandering, altogether non-heroic pursuit of the perpetrators. Various investigators demand illegal financial incentives, he is forced to tap the elite connections of his father, and even his lover won’t yield information willingly. The climax of the film similarly parodies the anticipated suspense and climactic pay off of a thriller with the unlikeliest approach to the hiding suspect (it involves college counselling for high school students) and then a concluding, rasping triumph of the most modest means.
The festival’s second prize went, somewhat unusually, to a powerful nonfiction film that affirms the themes of body and history above. The most (and justly) celebrated of the festival’s many essay films, Joachim Pinto’s E Agora? Lembra-me (What Now? Remind Me) became the talk of the festival early after its day two premiere and held on to collect multiple awards. An industry veteran of European art cinema, primarily through his work on sound with directors like Oliveira, Ruiz and Schroeter, Pinto recounts his experiences, both quotidian and extraordinary, in a year of experimental treatments for his (AIDS-related) Hepatitis C. The film follows that year of 2011-12 that manages to unfold a whole universe, not only of Pinto’s personal history but also of an ever expanding cosmos of film, other arts, nature, across Portugal, the Azores, Spain.
The film is lovely, moving, even revelatory, though it, at times, flirts with being overly long. Part of that patience-testing length, however, seems deliberate, as the theme of time itself becomes crucial, time both lost and regained through the illness, the treatments, and Pinto’s poetic response to both. The film’s Pinto, it turns out, to be something of a cinematic Proust – he spends much of the film lying down ill, a position that yields heightened sensitivity to the world around him and a breathtakingly artistic vision he can turn on just about anything, be it the world of insects, his dogs, or his human relations. The unusual title – both rhetorical and self-doubting – points to the Proustian unreliability and revelations of all mental processes when examined close-up. On the other side, as with many of the films at the festival, the body becomes a deliberate focus, in its ravages and revelations in our mobile, morphing world, not least in his relationship to Nuno, Pinto’s husband and great love, who remains intriguingly at the frame’s edge throughout much of the film. In effective essay filmic fashion, the film unfolds at both the micro level of Pinto’s suffering body and the macro level of Iberian struggles amid the financial/Euro crisis. He ruminates on the long-term threat for unemployed young people, the perils of public health insurance as countries austerely slash, and even recounts his aborted time studying medicine in East Germany, where he happened to encounter a young Angela Merkel. As with Merkel, there is a sense that Pinto has lived through a transformative historical time fraught with figures like Ruiz, Foucault, Jarman. Though not a conventional documentary, the film seems an invaluable document not only of a particular man’s life and illness, but of a sprawling, expansive moment.
Another award winning nonfiction film to premiere at the festival, Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana, unfurls astonishing meaning from the measliest of cinematic fabric: the entire film comprises some 11 nine-minute shots from within a cable-car ride up to the Manakamana temple in Nepal. Manakamana is the latest product of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Laboratory, produced there by Lucian Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel who premiered Leviathan last year at Locarno, and like that film, Manakamana pushes cinematic boundaries while, in good nonfiction film fashion, opening up a relatively unfamiliar corner of the world in breathtaking fashion. Shot from a nearly identical, static camera position opposite them in the cable car, the passengers are diverse in background and personality, some (like the first) not speaking at all, to others, like long-haired members of a rock group, making fun of the trip while clearly awed at the height of the ride and expanse of the mountains. The film manages to track the gap between the pilgrimages that used to crawl up the mountain to the mechanical obliviousness of a cable car to the terrain: almost all the passengers are stunned as they think back to what it must have been like – and was like for some of them – to walk the entire way. In this way, the film materialises like no other I can recall what Henri Lefebvre called abstract space, the abstraction of form from nature and its spaces as built environments make even modest inroads. Certainly, in this way, it seems a great ethnographic document of the historical transformation of what we often call, inadequately and infantilisingly, traditional life, all without fetishising the putatively “primitive” or other. On the other hand, however, the film manages to be a fundamental rumination on cinema and spectatorship: by giving no guiding background, it demonstrates how an art work can condition the viewer to learn from the most minute variations on rigorously pursued repetition. Such a disciplined approach allows for miniscule variations to generate immense meaning, including humorous moments involving non-human passengers up to Manakamana (and Manakamana’s) heights.
Quite a different world is opened up in Joanna Hogg’s third feature, Exhibition, which offers an unflinching, yet somehow not overly earnest account of urban creative work, long-term love and opulent domesticity. In upper-middle class west London, artist couple female D and male H have decided to sell their sprawling, modernist house, an impending sale now hanging, sword-like, over D in particular. H is insisting on selling their house before they grow “too old to do anything else”, a matter-of-fact rationale with which D cannot bring herself to argue. Hogg cast two actual artists as D (punk guitarist and artist Viv Albertine) and H (Turner-prize nominee Liam Gillick), from whom she draws surprisingly un-self-conscious performances. Particularly refreshing, as they live out their last days in the house, is Exhibition’s explicit visualisation of the sexual dissatisfactions of middle-aged people in middle-aged love. Gnawing sexual discontent is uneasily mixed with grounding long-term attachment. Although both are clearly not satisfied with the bodily pleasures of their relationship, neither can imagine going anywhere else emotionally, even as they insist on actually moving. The cracks, however, in both the house and people are beginning to show. D’s semi-naked exposing herself in front of a soaring picture window – only one of the film’s eponymous exhibitions – is one surprising, provocative reaction to the looming house sale. In fact, D seems more sexually interested in the house – in its walls, furniture, and especially its vantage points – than in her husband. Here again the struggles of the body parallel historical transformations: she seems to be corporeally rebelling against how their creative abode is, before her eyes and in front of her body, becoming the domain of slick real estate agents and wealthy immigrant buyers. Visually, the film is fascinating, particularly for Hogg’s use of the many sightlines, sliding doors, stairways and wells of James Melvin’s labyrinthine house (the film is dedicated to him at the end). Many films unfold a domestic space as central character in the story (from Hitchcock’s Psycho to Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights), but most of those are horror in some form; the only horror here is the vividly depicted doldrums of growing old among the relentlessly hip and urbane.
Two of the most anticipated premieres, by established auteurs Hong Sang-soo and Corneliu Porumboiu, did not prove as intriguing as the surprise award winners above. In Hong Sang-soo’s U ri Sunhi (Our Sunhi), which won the Best Director (third) prize, the eponymous protagonist has recently graduated from film school and decides she would like to study in the US (as Hong himself did). She arranges a meeting with a former professor who admits, cheerfully but ominously, that he will have to write her a very frank recommendation. Upon reading it, Sunhi realises that it provides for a rather mixed-bag perspective on her talents and prospects. She laments her bad academic luck with an ex-boyfriend and then potential new one, with these two then piggybacking on the professor’s judgmental and pompous advice to her. The film also stages the long-time student fantasy of confronting one’s alleged recommenders post (letter) facto, but here, as in many of Hong’s film, any direct confrontation is defused by lengthy talk punctuated by much alcohol. Hong’s films tend to variations on a fairly tight set of themes and characters: rearranging familiar chess pieces, wobbly with drink, on a minimalist board, his films recount the gap between self-perception and that of others. In both cases, petty narcissism shades any perspective, here particularly men’s self-serving need to see women they find attractive both innocent and somehow unfulfilled. Such minute psychological observations (like Rohmer’s and maybe Ozu’s) are especially dependent on performances, and, for the most part, they are strong here, particularly Jeong Yu-mi. It is not clear, however, that this confined and disciplined system of themes, characters and lengthy conversations will attract a lot of new fans to Hong’s minimalist work.
In Când se lasă seara peste Bucureşti sau metabolism (When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism), Corneliu Porumboiu follows one of art cinema’s familiar tacks, that of a self-reflexive rumination on filmmaking itself, but only the beginning and ending turn truly engaging. A youngish director Paul is having an affair with Alina, an actress in his current film, and When Evening Falls follows them through both casual conversations and private, tortured rehearsals, sketching them as perils to the film, along with the relentless inquiries of the producer on behalf of nosy insurance companies. Shot defiantly on 35mm – an increasing rarity nowadays for films of any, but especially small, budget – the film, like those above, foregrounds its particular historical moment, here most provocatively in an opening scene in which the director discusses with Alina the differences shooting this film in digital would bring. The end, illuminating in the dim light of a (staged) colonoscopy of Paul who the producer and insurance company fear is ill, similarly foregrounds the creepy burgeoning of varied visual technologies, materialised in innovative ways, as throughout the festival, on the body.
If many of this year’s premiering features manipulate the body to register and reflect upon historical change, two other premieres confirmed the potentially outré side to this corporeal approach. Perhaps the festival’s ultimate, certainly most shocking, exploration of the body came with the world premiere of David Wnendt’s Feuchtgebiete (Wetlands). Charlotte Roche, a German television personality, scandalised the Teutonic literary world five years ago with a best-selling novel that was taken to be a thinly veiled memoir: highly verbal and entertaining 18 year-old Helen is dedicated to defying the dictates of feminine hygiene. Her personal cause and crusade, however, suffer something of a setback when she (as is graphically and extensively recounted) cuts herself shaving her anus. Helen, however, promptly makes lemonade from medical lemons by seducing a male nurse compelled to check on the problem area. Given the topic – and above all the explicit details of its topics – Roche’s Wetlands seemed to many unfilmable, but Wnendt does a convincing, if toe-curling, job of bringing novel to the screen, not least by simplifying and focusing the story underpinning the bodily fireworks. The narrative has a surprisingly conservative subtext – is Helen’s unusual relationship to her body really due to her parent’s divorce and mother’s neuroses? – but the film is entertainingly executed, especially by the (body)challenging performances delivered by Swiss-Italian Carla Juri as Helen and Meret Becker as her conflicted mother.
Shinji Aoyama’s Tomogui took home the first prize of the festival’s Jury of Young People and tracks, similar to Wetlands, a provocatively sexual coming-of-age story. In Aoyama’s film, based on an award-winning novella, a river of industrial sludge divides a depressed and depressing 1980s Japanese town – and provides an extended, milky metaphor for tainted and tainting bodily fluids. Seventeen year-old Toma is on the verge of adulthood, but adulthood, for him, is defined largely sexually by his abusive father. His father has not so much abused him (at least not physically) as he did Toma’s mother and, after their divorce, subsequent lovers. As Toma begins to fall in love with his father’s current lover, he worries that he, father like son, has hitherto unknown sexual tastes running to the sadistic. Although Toma has started to sleep with a schoolmate, he finds himself tending more and more to the violent in the bedroom. Despite the uninhibited topic and fairly explicit depictions, the film proves much more lugubrious than erotic, not least given the environmentally disastrous setting and the self-searching anxiety underpinning any love. The film is effective in depicting a protagonist utterly uncertain himself – uncertain above all sexually – as well as a particular milieu, one resonant with environmental and subsequently emotional degradation.
International film festivals have to serve both the global film cognoscenti and their more local and localised constituencies, and one of this festival’s most remarkable events engaged directly with Swiss national politics, with many of the country’s top politicians attending its Piazza Grande premiere. It is revealing that The Blocher Experience also delivered another first-person essay film: Swiss-French Jean-Stéphane Bron offers a portrait of one of Switzerland’s best known, also notorious, politicians, Christoph Blocher. A “self-made” multi-billionaire, Blocher has been a leading figure in the Swiss People’s Party for decades, having built his considerable popularity on anti-EU diatribes and anti-immigrant vitriol bordering on xenophobia and even racism. His party is infamous, among other things, for its poster campaigns, including one of a large, black boot stomping down on the Swiss flag (“Stop Mass Immigration”) and another of a flock of emphatically white sheep kicking out a confused black lamb (“Create Security”). One of the more memorable of the many back-seat-of-car scenes has Blocher demanding, in his smiling arm-twisting manner, more pointed placards from one of his designers. The film also highlights the irony of his anti-immigrant rhetoric to “protect” Switzerland at the same time he has built his considerable personal fortunes in no small part on an early recognition of the profitability of exporting Swiss jobs to China – he, the film shows convincingly, has been able to ride the globalising, neoliberal wave in multiple, contradictory directions at once. While tracing Blocher’s career right through last year – including his dubious, likely illegal role in the resignation of the head of the Swiss federal bank – the film transcends the well-worn political biopic by foregrounding the filmmaker’s own feelings at doing an intimate portrait of someone he has despised. Bron underscores his personal feelings to highlight their inadequacies in analysing policy, for he finds himself empathetic to Blocher in ways he could never have imagined. In this way, the film indeed explores the “experience” of Blocher more than just the disquieting facts of his career, thereby investigating the inevitable role of charisma, charm and sympathy in human relationships as well as politics. Bron is self-critically honest about the near impossibility of keeping an objective distance while embedded within Blocher’s camp. Notwithstanding any commitment to objectivity, such intimate proximity will always be somewhat distorting and deceptive.
Another nonfiction film essay that explores the confusion of the personal and political, particularly as they intersect the body, is Pippo Delbono’s Sangue (Blood), which won a prize from the FICC/IFFS. In a memorable beginning, the well-known Italian actor Delbono offers remarkable images of the earthquake-devastated old town of L’Aquila, now a ghost town in the middle of Italy that politicians have abandoned along with its inhabitants. To these eerie images, Delbono muses on the ethical response to such a cascade of empty promises and perpetual lies from the political class. One answer from long ago is suggested by a friend of Delbono’s, the recently released, former Red Brigades terrorist Giovanni Senzani, whom Delbono drives around in a world Senzani hardly recognises. Though Sangue frames its 90 minutes with such political questions, it juxtaposes to these, not always convincingly, the personal, even intimate side of Delbono’s life, especially his relationship to his anti-communist mother Margherita. The film in fact weaves a double story, of Delbono and Senzani and then Delbono’s mother and Senzani’s wife Anna, who waited years for him but then, like Delbono’s mother, dies in short diegetic order. Fassbinder once memorably drew his own mother out on camera about how the state should violently suppress left-wing terrorism, but Delbono’s depictions of his mother are not as subtle or complicated. Here, lingering shots of her degenerating body and Delbono’s caressing it lovingly explore how one is to negotiate love of family and conundrums of political life, a twain that here hardly meets. The film contrasts public activities – not least in Delbono’s stage appearances – with the privacy of his last visits to his mother and then long-take (and altogether too long) sequences of her dying and her burial rites. Though the film returns to Senzani at the end, not least for a much-talked about account of a Red Brigades execution, the terrain Sangue figuratively and literally covers fails, in its initially intriguing juxtapositions, to cohere.
Locarno Film Festival
7-17 August 2013
Festival website: http://www.pardolive.ch