The annual controversy at this year’s Locarno Film Festival started well before its screens flickered to life in early August. In fact, a vehement protest, heated debate, and threatened boycott started almost as soon as the barest bones of the program emerged back in the early spring: Locarno was to feature, in one of its many sidebar sections, Israeli cinema, a plan that intersected the recent calls for a cultural/artistic boycott of Israel. As a tacit concession, the Festival did rename the planned section (“First Look” rather than “Carte Blanche”, presumably because it did not want to be perceived as giving Israel any kind of carte blanche), but the Festival went ahead with the planned six films in sidebar. Two Tunisian filmmakers (as part of the separate “Open Doors” section) did withdraw films, but others, like Alaa Karkouti of MAD Solutions, undertook what strikes this writer as a more productive response: to advocate for bringing more Arab films, not fewer, to promote the kind of communication, dialogue and cosmopolitanism that is the lifeblood of such festivals, particularly Locarno, where the public has unusual access to the filmmakers, and the program has always had a deliberately international flavour.
The festival’s competition did end up honoring, with its second-place jury prize, an Israeli film, but that film, Tikkun, critically examines the perils of religious-based identity (about which more below). But, tellingly for Locarno, the festival’s top prize, its Pardo d’oro (Golden Leopard), was awarded to a self-proclaimed art-cinema director and, in fact, was seen to be rewarding him for sticking to and refining his auteurist guns. Locarno regular Hong Sang-soo premiered one of his strongest recent films, Right Now Wrong Then (Jigeumeun matgo geuttaeneun teullida), a shrewd variation on the linear narrative of a stuttering romance – the film was, indeed, among the best (most complete and consistently intriguing) in a competition in which no clear favourite had emerged. With autobiographical (or perhaps autobiographical-fantastical) overtones, a well-known art-cinema director appears a day early for a screening and discussion in the South Korean provinces, so he kills his time by visiting a local palace where (in the aptly named blessing hall) he meets a young woman he quickly falls for. There is, however, one important wrinkle in this standard romantic arc: he is already married – married young and apparently regretting it now – and how he handles this uncomfortable, but highly relevant fact becomes the fulcrum of the film’s intriguing two halves. In the first half he approaches divulging his marriage to his new acquaintance one way, while the second half revisits the scenes and set-ups of the first half from the beginning, with the smallest yet fateful changes. The film also displays a recurring theme of this year’s competition, the effectual – or not – negotiation of work and private life/love, be it romantic or familial.
Despite the surface similarities in the film’s narrative repetition, Right Now’s second half holds one’s attention better than many third acts of conventional narratives: what at first seems an intriguing cinematic puzzle – find Waldo-like hidden changes in the second half’s re-stagings – becomes the resonant consequences of decisions that we take in our dealings with other people, especially other people to whom our hearts might ineluctably draw us. While not totally unknown in its narrative approach – Hal Hartley, for example, played with similar repetitions of scenarios in his aptly named Flirt – the effect here is particularly powerful because of how high the stakes (and heavy the weight of the past) are in the early stages of a relationship, when the smallest emotional twig can divert the entire relationship river. Besides this narrative intrigue, the film also offered a lesson in the consequential subtleties of acting, with the festival’s acting prize going to Jeong Jae-yeong, who plays the delightfully equivocating director.
The aforementioned second-place jury prize went to Avishai Sivan for Tikkun, an unusual coming of age story that, upon its world premiere a month earlier, won the Best Feature film prize (and three others) at the Jerusalem Film Festival. The film traces the parallel struggles of father and son as the son, Haim-Aaron, matures within the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem. There are clearly Abraham and Isaac overtones, but ultimately only the inscrutable silence of God in confronting familial tensions in a strictly religious family. The first act has his kosher butcher father (notably and movingly played by Palestinian Muslim Khalifa Natour) fully in support of his son’s obsessive dedication to his Yeshiva studies, for which Haim-Aaron force-feeds his brain while starving his body. He, however, starts to have an uneven bodily (sexual) awakening, the shock of which actually leads to a shower collapse and head injury. He is about to be declared dead by paramedics when his father insists on continued CPR. These efforts do bring him back, but the father wonders if he has counteracted God’s will as his son is clearly changed: formerly back-breakingly disciplined, Haim-Aaron feels lethargic, is unable to sleep or focus on his studies, and, most fatefully, he feels the increasing pull of women around him. The atmospheric and often eerie look of the film also impressed the competition jury, which gave its cinematographer Shai Goldman a special mention. Shot in an arresting black and white in Jerusalem old city (the crew apparently dressed as Hasidim to shot there without being disturbed), atmospheric and very well acted, Tikkun is a powerful film, albeit one that is not shy about exploiting the putative otherness of the ultra-orthodox, including an opening and then recurring scene of the kosher butcher at work.
The third-place, director’s prize went to one of the festivals more anticipated premieres, Cosmos, by veteran Polish director Andrzej Zulawski, who, after initially breaking through in 1981 with Possession and then impressing with a number of follow-ups (L’amour braque, La note bleue), had not made a film in some 15 years, having spent most of his time, he reported, writing books. In this absurdist-comedic adaptation of the much loved Polish novel of the same name (by Witold Gombrowicz), the film’s Witold is a law student who has failed his exams and, to prepare for the retake and to nurse a recently broken heart, isolates himself at a country house in Portugal. The plot commences with Witold’s line “I am afraid of forests,” signaling from the get-go its bad-boy fairytale atmosphere and how the film will be a stream of consciousness exploration of Witold’s most intimate fears and desires (this being French-Polish, many of those desires will be literary, in which directions his professional ambitions actually run). After searching for a hotel with his impish friend Fuchs, their spontaneous choice of guest house soon impedes his carefully plotted study: the hosts there are an eccentric family bordering on the crazy, a thin line the film exploits for some repeated, somewhat surreal laughs, including recurring gags about sexual repression and absurdist (if disturbing) pranks involving the hanging of animals and eventually a person. Despite his career reasons for (not so monkishly) exiling himself to the countryside, Witold predictably falls for the family’s frustrated actress/now English-teacher daughter, whom he pursues despite her recent marriage – what it all amounts to is not entirely clear by the end, but Zulawski manages to maintain an amusingly frenetic tone throughout.
Another of the winners from the main competition, Hamaguchi Ryusuke’s Happy Hour picked up both the best screenplay prize (quite an accomplishment for a film that runs over five hours) and the best female actor prize, awarded collectively to the four women (Tanaka Sachie, Kikuchi Hazuki, Mihara Maiko, Kawamura Rira) whose characters are at the centre of the ensemble film. The four characters are good friends who go out, travel together, and support each other in their careers; they are also all at different points in their relationships with invariably confused men. Although it may sound like a Japanese Sex and the City, and there are certainly some moments of sisterhood levity, the film is a serious and thoughtful rumination on what women want and are (limitingly) allowed in their relationships with all too clueless partners. Akari, a sometimes harshly exacting nurse, has already divorced a cheating husband and is lonely; Fumi has what seems a dream marriage but her husband exploits her professional connections to promote his career; Jun, newly pregnant, is determined to divorce her oblivious and cold biologist spouse; and Sakurako’s husband assumes a complete division of labour in the household (him earn money, her make home), even dispatching her alone to pay a family whose teen-aged daughter is pregnant by their son. The view of marital and professional options for women is, at the least, severely skeptical, but the film also manages not to be simplistic or reductive, with the complicity of the women in these bad relationships clear and their subsequent connections to each other also explored. Notably, toward the end of the film, people, men and women, start to fall down unexpectedly, floored as they by the changing expectations around work, love, and sexuality.
Although it did not receive a prize in the main competition where it premiered, Sina Ataeian Dena’s Paradise (Ma dar Behesht) was deservedly awarded the Swatch Art Peace Hotel prize from the jury for first features. In Paradise – co-produced by Yousef Panahi, brother and sometime producer of Berlin Golden- (and Silver-) Bear winner Jafar Panahi – opens with a memorable voiceover, not of a single character recounting the past, but of an interview of a female teacher, Hanieh, about the rules regarding the/her female body in school. This is unusual voiceover because Dena offers viewers nothing visually, merely black, as Hanieh is relentlessly queried on how much of the ankle may be shown and how much of the neck may appear (the answer, apparently, is none in both cases, at least for teachers). The effect of the opening voice over black is powerful (reminiscent of M’s opening, Lang’s very first use of sound) and underscores how Hanieh’s body is contained and controlled in the society, not only at the micro level of her clothing, but also at the macro level of where she is assigned to teach: the film follows in elliptical fashion Hanieh’s attempts to transfer from a suburb of Tehran to closer to city centre, the transfer for which she has subjected herself to this disconcerting interview. She wants the transfer not least because of the arduous and exhausting journey she has to make to work, a journey whose lengthy travails are documented carefully throughout the film – that journey becomes the occasion, as it does in many of the neorealist classics, to depict an uneven and broken cityscape. In this neorealist vein, there is even a lengthy child’s voyage through the broken topography nearer the school. The film balances that with its M references, with vivacious little girls tempted by a kindly ball offered by a would-be assailant, although the specific crimes remain intriguingly understated and in the background: as in M the film works much more by suggestion than spectacle, leaving the text open but much more memorable.
A somewhat surprising non-winner was one of the festival’s most anticipated premieres, Chevalier, Athina Rachel Tsangari’s first feature since her cult hit Attenberg, which memorably introduced French actress Ariane Labed (who won an acting award here last year) in a language she apparently could not speak. Unfortunately, Chevalier was largely regarded as a disappointment, though, I would underscore, an entertaining and well observed one: even if it lacked Attenberg’s delightful originality, it still offered the sort of gratifyingly humorous insight about the human creature and its peculiar relationships, not least to itself. If Attenberg was finely and funnily attuned to a young woman’s coming of (familial and sexual) age, Tsangari seemed determined to make a film entirely of middle-aged and status obsessed men (women only appear remotely, through phones and a video-call citing a memorable scene from Attenberg). Six “friends” of varying familiarity are on a rich physician’s luxury yacht and, decide in stereotypically male fashion, to initiate a series of contests to rank them, creating a hierarchy where they really did not need one. The range of characters is fairly familiar, from the presiding patriarchal doctor (the annoyingly dignified father-in-law of one of the men) to yuppie type-A jogger to swaggeringly cool Yorgos (who plays Tsangari’s husband in Linklater’s Greek episode in Before Midnight). It is European art cinema does the Hangover – there is even a Zach Galifianakis look alike whose oddity and odd shape are exploited for occasionally cheap jokes – but the humour is usually higher and often intellectual. Even if some of the parts are familiar, it all adds up funnily, underscoring Tsangari’s observational and comedic skills. Although the film was scripted and shot before the most recent (screw) turns of Eurozone negotiations, Tsangari suggested at the Festival that the cutthroat competition on the boat is a metaphor for the recent economic challenges facing Greece, which certain northern Europeans have ostensibly regarded as a sinking ship.
Two of the best films in the competition did not receive any prizes, highlighting just how diverse and deep the program was again this year (if not quite reaching the heights of the last edition). This diversity included considerable generational divergence in the competition: one made by a young Latino/US filmmaker, Julio Hernández Cordón, and one by an established Paris-based, Georgian master, Otar Iosseliani (the recent recipient of a career prize at Locarno). As in Larry Clark’s Kids or Gus van Sant’s Paranoid Park, skateboarding is more than a sport or hobby in Cordón’s well conceived and made Te prometo anarquia (I Promise You Anarchy) – in all these works, skateboarding unfolds an extended metaphor for how the young are levitationally rolling away from a precariously balanced adult society. Visually, of course, skateboarding also offers a cinematic mode to depict a specific time (right now) and place (famous but elusive large city). The skaterly anarchy here traces an upper-middle class kid, Miguel, who is in love with Johnny, the son of his family’s cleaning lady; Miguel is searingly jealous of Johnny’s girlfriend Adri, even as Miguel and Johnny continue to sleep together. Miguel is confused why, when he and Johnny share their interest in skateboarding and in each other – all imaged vividly throughout the busy streets of Mexico City – Johnny should maintain interest in a young woman, whose clothes Miguel then resentfully ends up stealing. Out of apparent unclothed solidarity, Johnny strips down to do some romantic naked skateboarding with her on a jai alai court, in what I suspect is a cinematic first. Cordon, however, also adds an intriguing dimension to the skating-youth-sex panic familiar from Kids by letting the teens be pulled, in most disturbing fashion, into a criminal ring linked to Mexico’s gang problems, a development that splits the teenagers by their diverging class roots. Like many in their skater scene, they have been earning money by donating blood (one of them so often that he begins passing out), and when a bigger bloody payday is promised, they take it upon themselves to capitalise in disquieting entrepreneurial fashion.
In his title Winter Song (Chant d’hiver), France-based Georgian veteran Iosseliani recalls Rohmer’s Winter’s Tale (Conte d’hiver), a titular nod to a similarly auteurist, if very different sensibility. In fact, the title citation may be one of Iosseliani’s many high-humour gags: Rohmer’s cinema consistently offered breathtakingly dense dialogue attuned to the minutia of how people relate to each other – for example, a seduction entailing an entire night of talking, usually seen as the inspiration for Linklater’s similar garrulous cinema – but Iosseliani opens with a silent 20-minute opening and cues the era of silent cinema in its scored music. It is to Iosseliani’s credit that, light as it is on dialogue even as the low-key action moves to modern Paris and imaginary environs, the film is consistently engaging and entertaining, even as one puzzles over some of its almost surrealist messages (why the constant skulls? why a street-side trapdoor to Eden?). The large ensemble and wide range of vignettes help keep things moving in dream-like non-sequiturs (Iosseliani is often compared to Tati, for a touch remarkable in its lightness, originality, and its biting critique of the modern). Despite this amusingly eclectic approach, certain themes emerge and recur, especially around violence and people’s baser drives getting the better of them, for example, in a movable market that trades antique books for weapons while the police, busy in a swimming pool, carry out completely hapless surveillance on those both criminal and harmless surrounding them.
In her highly anticipated but disappointing No Home Movie, there are moments when Chantal Akerman invokes Proustian themes of childhood, time and memory, particularly as mediated by an aging relative, but also far too many when the viewer is left, sometimes with two-to-three minute shots, in an empty room or watching her mother reading a magazine (unfortunately, without being able to see the pages she does). If Proust was able to prise open an entire milieu (a city, a country, a world) in his relationship to himself, Akerman, in exploring her relationship to her mother, does not get much beyond her mother’s apartment. Such moments raise issues of authorial expressivity, but the author/artist has to have the (admittedly elusive) sense of what will interest audiences, and it is hard to see multi-minute shots of an empty living room really engaging viewers (and I am speaking as someone who had a beloved Walloon grandmother from Brussels). This seems a lost opportunity because there are the makings of an interesting film here, not least as concerns what Marianne Hirsch has called post-memory, the way that later generations (in this case, Akerman herself) relate to the Holocaust memories of the parents’ generation. But those moments are too often submerged and lost in the minutia of Belgian apartment life that Akerman has explored more effectively before.
If Akerman’s portrait of her mother proves at times overly long and self-involved, Sergio Oksman’s O Futebol offered a more satisfying exploration of an aging parent-adult child relationship over its much tighter 70 minutes. In his droll opening, a voiceover recounts how Sergio (living in Spain) had not seen his Brazilian father for some 20 years before April 2013, when he asked his father to take him to a stadium they visited when he was a child (cut to image of son Sergio and father Simão standing in drenching rain in front of a shabby stadium). The film jumps to roughly a year later, when Sergio visits Simão again for the 2014 Brazil World Cup, but it becomes quickly clear that, although the tournament schedule lends the film an intriguing temporal structure, football becomes only a metaphor, or, more accurately, a mediating distraction, a sort of repressed and repressing language, for father and son to come to terms with the father’s separation from his wife when Sergio was only four. There is, in fact, almost no soccer in the film – the father is too busy working to go – so the film registers instead people’s self-deluding emotional investment in the world’s most popular spectator sport. The occasion of Sergio’s reaching out to his father and own past comes into sad focus when viewers learn that he and his partner are separating back in Madrid: Sergio recently moved into a hotel exiled from partner and child (his father estimates that, after moving out in 1974, he spent at least twelve years in a hotel). As in No Home Movie, the layering of childhood memory and lost time comes to the fore, but O Futebol is more engaged with its world, both the global distraction of sports and the Sao Paolo cityscape here hosting it.
Similarly but even more explicitly Proustian is Pascale Breton’s Suite Armoricaine, which weaves a dense ensemble of characters from three generations to give a distinct and satisfying sense of place amid a university community in Brittany (Rennes). This cultivated sense of place is deliberately reflected upon, as the film of foregrounds the academic disciplines of Geography and Breton & Celtic Studies to highlight how generations of both family and friends can, or cannot, create continuity of place, language and culture. Although this (academic departments, etc.) may sound dry, Suite manages to unfold it at an arresting emotional level, a complex and satisfying play not just with geographic facts, but how people relate to place over the course of time. Long-based in Paris, Françoise has returned to the university in Rennes, where she studied and near where she grew up, ostensibly for a post in Art History, but mostly, the film reveals slowly, because she felt stifled, even suffocating, in Paris and in her fifteen year relationship there. Her inaugural lecture at the university is on Nicolas Poussin’s “et in arcadia ego [I was in Arcadia],” which risks romanticising her return to the settings of her early adulthood, but Suite also shows how she has forgotten much, for the good and bad. Many of the people who populated her student years, including many from the local punk scene, are still around and welcome her back either somewhat quizzically (the men are predictably curious to see her again) or ambivalently (the two underemployed female friends, Catherine and Moon, who more clearly feel competitive with her). Having struggled since those years with substances and homelessness, Moon, played by one-time US indie darling Elina Löwensohn, actually has a son who was taken from her young and who now refuses to acknowledge her as his mother (even as she and her homeless troupe occupy his dorm room). While Moon’s son struggles with what loyalty he owes her, Françoise starts to retrace her childhood, including a Proustian return to the mémoire involontaire of the plants her grandfather used as a healer and the Breton language she has hardly thought about in decades.
Two of the most lovely and intriguing films of the competition went surprisingly unremarked upon by any of the juries. In its meandering, melancholic and lovely portrait of the Campania region of Italy (that of Naples, Sorrento, etc.), Lost and Beautiful (Bella e perduta) swims against the current of mainstream cinema in a number of ways, not least in extended voiceover from a buffalo (including the memorable and telling observation that “being a buffalo is an art”). Directed by doc veteran Pietro Marcello and co-written by Maurizio Braucci of Gomorrah fame, Lost and Beautiful extends Locarno’s long run of memorable film essays, even if the intimate voiceover here is not from a self-searching auteur but from the aforementioned buffalo and his companion, a masked and capped pulcinella, or punch, from 17th-century commedia dell’arte. The pulcinella leads the buffalo through the landscape in loving memory of the buffalo’s original saviour, Tommaso Cestrone, who adopted the buffalo much as he adopted the Carditello, an 18th-century Bourbon palace in Caserta that recalls and underscores the beauty of both the region and its glorious past. The film emanates in poetic fashion from this palace of past glory and from Cestrone himself, the person who, despite ubiquitous derision, voluntarily committed himself to recovering it. This past is not only lost due to the ineluctable flow of time, however, and one of the most urgent themes certainly intersects Gomorrah: the Carditello serves as a searing reminder of the damage done to the region by the Comorra (the powerful local organised crime group), that looted the palace for its valuables and then used it as a dumping ground for its many waste removal businesses. Despite this potentially grim material, the film’s sly humour far from the urban crowds recalls Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I, though, as in Gleaners, the resonances are far beyond the often rural settings and the lovely landscapes they offer.
Artist and experimental filmmaker Ben Rivers offered the festival’s longest and probably most poetic title, The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are Not Brothers, for his adaptation, after an initial interlude, of the famed Paul Bowles short story “A Distant Episode”. In the Bowles story about European cluelessness in the African desert, the westerner travelling to Morocco is a linguistics professor, but times have changed, and Rivers’ opening interlude follows a hubristic film production in Morocco, registering for c. thirty-five minutes in vivid 16mm Cinemascope both the expansive beauty of the landscape and the chiding challenges of working as a foreigner there. To watch a Landrover running sand over its wheels amid wide landscapes and their many steep mounds – as well as the unstable, all too easily abandoned identity of a westerner allegedly working – recalls admirable forebears like Antonioni’s The Passenger. River’ production is very smartly conceived, as he was able to piggy-back on the real-life, larger film production of his friend, the director Oliver Laxe, while ruminating on what a western director is doing there in the desert. For the second half, director Laxe then plays the protagonist in the Bowles’ narrative, a westerner quickly in over his (soon metal clad) head. The Bowles story is remarkable for its utter evacuation of western personhood in favour of an immersively inscrutable world, a trick that is nearly impossible to achieve in film, or not, in this challenging, fascinating effort that adapts as much by atmosphere as by the letter of source text.
Besides these two neglected films from the competition, it was worth noting that the film most often selected in the end-of-festival critics poll was from the Signs of Life section – José Luis Guerín’s The Academy of Muses (L’Accademia delle Muse). Half an hour into the Academy, a woman (one of the eponymous muses) talks to a young girl – a young girl whose presence comes as something of a shock. Until that point, viewers have usually seen a lecturing (and pontificating) male professor at a Barcelona university as well as his attentive “muses” (aka attractive female university students), all offered at such length it might seem to be merely documenting him and them. When this particular woman (one of the muses) narrates to the young girl the myth of Apollo’s falling in love with Daphne, the girl asks simply, “why did he do that?” The woman answers, after a moment’s conspicuously confused hesitation, “it’s a love story, and it is complicated.” Complicated, indeed, it is in this film full of such myths, poems, stories in general and their application to the lives we lead in and out of love. The film goes to great lengths to explore the relationship between love as sketched by those stories and our own feelings, particularly as we usually regard these feelings as among the most natural but that, as the little girl’s simple question fundamentally queries, remain timelessly opaque. In the film, the almost nonstop academic discourse engages the mind while the eye settles on this professor slowly but steadily working his way into the graces (and probably pants) of these student-muses who he claims inspire his poetry. The discourse becomes abruptly more than academic, the interest more than professional, when the married professor suddenly surfaces in Sardinia with a female student and then in Naples with another. His lectures are punctuated by breaks at home with his canny wife, who sees through the elaborate shtick, and takes him, and eventually one of the muses, to dramatic task for the beautiful but breathtaking self-delusion.
One last brief mention goes to the winner of the Piazza Grande section’s UBS public prize (the one that catapulted on Donnersmarck’s Lives of Others to international fame several years ago): Lars Kraume’s The People vs. Fritz Bauer (Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer) is a powerful and convincing reminder of the suspect politics of early postwar West Germany (and some of its allies, including the US). Although occasionally clunky in dialogue and staging – one wonders if it were initially intended primarily for German TV – it does an admirable job of a historically and politically complex story delivered in unusually moving terms: if Germans need heroic role models from their recent history, they do not have to look much further than Fritz Bauer. A Social Democrat of Jewish origin, Bauer spent time briefly in a Nazi concentration camp before complying in a written statement – an all-too common-place compromise that inspired his postwar passion for bringing shadowy Nazi criminals into the light of German courts. At that point, in the late 1950s and 1960s, a disturbing number of Nazi criminals were living within West Germany and without, having been able to evade Allied and German justice a too little easily, likely because many of the Allies (most notably the US) were focused much more on the Cold War (cf. the US’s absorption of Nazi rocket specialists). In his position as the equivalent of an attorney general in one of Germany’s most important states (Hessen, where Frankfurt is), Bauer runs into stiff German resistance to prosecuting Nazis, including obstacles of all sorts from Germany’s intelligence services. In a manner reminiscent of The Imitation Game, the film mixes political history with the struggle for gay (human) rights, though both the politics and that history are admirably more complex than in Imitation Game: the German intelligence service used Bauer’s homosexuality to try to silence him and his pursuit of, among others, the highest level Nazi brought to justice after Nuremberg, Adolf Eichmann. People vs. Fritz Bauer provides another reminder of the impressive range of one of Germany’s most famous character actors, Burghardt Klausner (probably best known to international audiences as the pastor in Haneke’s White Ribbon) as well as the rising star of Ronald Zehrfeld, the male lead from Petzold’s Barbara and Phoenix (the latter of which, Zehrfeld reminded before the Piazza Grande public, was dedicated to the memory of Bauer).
Locarno Film Festival
5-15 August 2015
Festival website: http://www.pardolive.ch/orig/pardo/festival-del-film-locarno/home.html