When, in May, long-time festival regular Ken Loach took his second Cannes Palme d’Or for I, Daniel Blake, there was understandable moaning from many quarters that – despite the pre-festival press about female filmmakers and particular praise for Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann – the more things might apparently change at the big festivals, the more they stayed the sexist same. At this year’s Locarno Festival, (recently renewed) artistic director Carlos Chatrian similarly declared that he foresaw increasing numbers of women filmmakers in the competitions of major festivals and that he was especially proud to tout, in Locarno’s main competition section (with 17 world premieres), eight women directors.1 And Locarno’s outcome, amid an impressively deep competition pool, was unexpectedly different: although I, Daniel Blake did win the audience award of the Festival’s mainstream Piazza Grande section, a female writer/director, Ralitza Petrova, took the festival’s top prize for her brooding and bleak Bulgarian film Godless. Her victory underscores how, in the end, many of the strongest of the very good competition films at Locarno this year resonated, or dealt directly, with diversity of various sorts, be it the presence of the unconventional behind or in front of the camera. Given Locarno’s position as the second oldest major festival in Europe but fourth in import behind the big three of Cannes, Berlin and Venice, this year’s edition reinforced the abiding place of a less industry-driven, more risk-taking festival among its more headily hyped brethren.
Petrova’s Godless proved a surprise winner of the festival’s top prize, the Pardo d’oro/Golden Leopard, because it is her debut feature that found her in competition with more experienced and established art cinema directors like Romanian Radu Jude (winner of the Special Jury Prize for Inimi cicatrizate / Scarred Hearts) and Portuguese Joao Pedro Rodrigues (winner of the best director prize for O Ornitólogo / The Ornithologist). Godless was just one of two Bulgarian films about modern-day crime and corruption in the post-Soviet state, with the other, Slava (Glory), from Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, who had impressed with Urok (The Lesson, 2014). But, even if these two films might amount to something of a Bulgarian wave – to nod at critics’ affinity for wave-spotting – Petrova’s Godless was, indeed, the stronger film overall of the two, a memorable portrait of desolation and desperation in the Bulgarian provinces, where even the foundations of human relations are evaporating.
Seemingly unremarkable among Vratsa’s downbeat denizens, Gana is morose for reasons that become rapidly, sickeningly clear: her day job as a house-calling health-aid for the elderly, especially for those suffering dementia, affords her and her boyfriend ample opportunity to steal the identity of these unsuspecting clients. They do so at the behest of a shadowy criminal ring in which the town’s police, among others, are involved; this ring, for example, conveniently covers for a murder that her boyfriend “accidentally” commits when one of the aged starts to inquire after her suddenly missing ID. Gana’s seemingly mundane employment also offers regular access to medical-grade morphine, which numbs both her and boyfriend to their circumstance and to each other: their withering romantic and sexual life further degrades Gana’s far-fetched hopes for happiness. She is finally moved to ill-advised action when she begins to befriend an elderly choir director who bridges this world adrift to both the crimes of the past as well as to higher aesthetic purpose, be it religious or not. Godless pivots on the atmosphere of the dejected town, for which Petrova chose an academy-like ratio, she said, to pull the viewers down the dismal hole in which the film begins and ends, as well as on the impressive performance of a non-professional, Irena Ivanova, in the role of Gana, to which the jury awarded the best female actor prize.
One of the strongest films at the festival, and one of the best I have seen recently, was Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts, which took the the Special Jury Prize, generally regarded as the second-place prize, at the festival. A period piece from the 1930s, Hearts is based on the searing, sarcastic, yet movingly poetic writings of Jewish-Romanian author (and physically vigorous “invalid”) Max Blecher. If European art(house) cinema has long exploited explicitness around the body – part of its value proposition vis-à-vis Hollywood cinema’s sexual prudishness coupled with violent indulgence – such body cinema is not always (entirely) about sex. Scarred Hearts underscores how sophisticated cinema can explore the relationship between a self and its corporeal encasement, in particular how a mind (and movie) of depth can entertain through the sheer force of will, humour and insight. The ironic, sardonic Blecher spent many years in a sanatorium near the Black Sea with Pott’s disease, a kind of spinal tuberculosis that laid him out flat and subjected him to excruciating procedures (thus the film’s regular echoing of Andrea Mantegna’s Christ compositions). Hearts combines these Diving Bell and the Butterfly insights with an entertaining, eastern-European version of Mann’s Magic Mountain, less voluminously pedantic, more darkly sarcastic and skeptical in a sanatorium’s limited days. Jude intersperses the text of Blecher’s vivid writings throughout the film, adding (and considering) a vivid literary voice alongside Lucian Teodor Rus’s breathtaking performance, not least because it is primarily delivered on his back and largely through voice and body rather than face throughout. Jude reminds how hospitals are unique spaces where patients are forced to engage with those whose bodies, not work or opinions, have drawn them together. A double outsider – both disabled and Jewish – Manu is stuck with people he comes to like even as they simultaneously deny being anti-Semites and praise Hitler. It is a degenerating political world only apparently outside the sanatorium walls, underscoring the precarious balance that Jude manages to strike throughout this impressive achievement.
João Pedro Rodrigues won a special mention (with co-director, João Rui Guerra de Mata) at Locarno in 2012 for A Última Vez Que Vi Macau (The Last Time I Saw Macao), his last feature, and The Ornithologist demonstrates in mercurial, mysterious, ultimately convincing fashion his diversity of interests and talents. In this year’s end-of-festival critics’ poll, no film was more named than The Ornithologist (although, it should be said, only three of c. 20 polled named it the best film, underscoring again this year the diversity of products on offer at Locarno). A cursory plot summary – Fernando, a hunky ornithologist observing wildlife in northern Portugal, becomes lost and encounters numerous adventures – would hardly do justice to the film’s oneirically discontinuous character. For instance, Fernando, played corporeally by rising French star Paul Hamy (his Portuguese voicing is done by Rodrigues himself), might just become, that is, be transfigured into, someone saintly else, although viewers can never really be sure. Something of a clue comes from the ornithologist’s first surprise human encounter (after the avian nonhumans he memorably encounters and whose POV the film repeatedly, if briefly, offers). After capsizing his kayak in some rapids, he is “rescued” by two Chinese women who say they are on the pilgrim trail of Camino de Santiago, but are also haunted by other spirits of the forest. That theirs is a Christianity plus – or, rather, that every religion is powered by often subversive affective pleasures – becomes clear when one sucks the bloodied finger of the other a little too long (followed up by a memorable licking of her knee). What religion is, and what relation it has to sensuousness, sensuality, and nature more generally, become key questions in the film, as it visits the not-so-familiar stations along the putatively saintly way (many of the echoes seem to be of St. Anthony, not least in the film’s destination of Padua). Traversing far from conventional narrative, Rodrigues’s insights into storytelling, its affinity for apotheosis, and links between the supernatural and mundane worlds, are by intriguing turns both droll and brilliant.
In Jan Matuszyński’s Ostatnia rodzina (The Last Family), the winner of the prize for male performance, Andrzej Seweryn, plays a paterfamilias, who, in one of the film’s many memorable conversations his family has about itself, asks: whoever said families are supposed to like each? Although this might sound like the makings of a hard-edged look at difficult dynamics of family – and, indeed, these are not rose-coloured filters for the 1970s-early 2000s Polish housing projects where the film is set – Matuszyński manages to take the film in an entirely original, and entirely extreme, direction. The family is not only dysfunctional, but destructively so: son Tomasz (Dawid Ogrodnik) attempts suicide multiple times and vents verbally before and after each effort to such an extreme degree that the apparently mild-mannered father discusses with a doctor just letting him go. This father, it turns out, is the famous surrealist painter Zdzisław Beksiński, whose sexually and violently graphic paintings have surrounded Tomasz since childhood. One wonders if it were not these grotesque canvasses, rather the gap between them and the family’s petty bourgeois existence that most puts Tomasz in a tailspin (if anything external did). His parents live in a regular housing project in a regular apartment (aside from those ubiquitous, almost cascading canvasses), dressing in regular ways and engaging those around them in regular, if often witty, conversation. The gap between this apparently banal existence and Zdzisław’s staggering artistic creativity, driven by a vivid interior life only occasionally hinted at, animates and de-animates Tomasz, particularly as he struggles to become, as he eventually would, a well-known DJ, translator and film synchroniser. Zdzisław’s wife and Tomasz’s mother Zofia (Aleksandra Konieczna) is left stuck between them. As with Konienczna as Zofia, the performances are, frankly, amazing, as is the photography of the drab housing project, an impressive updating of Kieslowski’s Decalogue: Beksiński’s period painting studio is tucked away in a seemingly normal flat but opens up in breathtakingly otherworldly ways, much like this excellent film.
The festival awarded a special mention to another of the film’s most talked about competition films, Mister Universo, directed by Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel. Universo stages an altogether different kind of outsider in a very different kind of genre: the film is a quasi documentary, shot with non professional actors (along with numerous nonhumans) on locations around Italy, one should actually say “non film actors” since both the humans and nonhumans are certainly performers, namely, circus performers, including the central figure, Tairo, a lion and tiger tamer as well as his girlfriend, Wendy, a kindly if superstitious body contortionist. Although viewers do, at times, watch part of their circus acts, Covi and Frimmel follow their lives much more backstage and back in their personal trailers, including when Tairo is robbed, likely by circus colleagues, of a good luck amulet adored since childhood. The charm, a bent iron bar, was given to him by another circus personality, the eponymous “Mister Universo”, namely, the first black Mister Universe, Arthur Robin. Robin was an immigrant from Guadalupe, a distant, colonial background underscoring the diversity of the multifaceted circus community. As Tairo searches for Robin to replace his good-luck charm, he visits aging members of his extended family to query Universo’s current whereabouts. One has the sense that Covi and Frimmel are documenting, even in staged scenes, a mode of life and work fading rapidly: Tairo’s meandering itinerary seems to sum up the diaspora of an increasingly obsolete lifestyle. The film couples a fondness for fading performance – the artists themselves love watching their colleagues’ various acts as well – with a lifestyle close to animals of various sorts: Tairo’s affection for his moody, mammoth felines is palpable even as one sympathises with their constricted lives in captivity. Similarly, one memorable scene offers along these non-human lines an aging, talented chimpanzee who worked with Fellini as well as Argento and who is surely working below her usual rate, to good end in this modest but memorable film.
In one of the most anticipated of the premieres in Locarno, Matías Piñeiro continues his loose, sometimes woolly adaptations of Shakespeare for contemporary Argentina: his La princesa de Francia (The Princess of France, 2014) won hearts and minds two years ago at its Locarno premiere, and Hermia & Helena extends his winning streak, if in a slightly more stuttering form. Taking Midnight Summer’s Dream rather than Love’s Labor Lost as its Bardic inspiration, Hermia & Helena pushes Piñeiro’s trademark talky and entertaining style in a productive new direction – “direction” being an operative word in this complex and engaging sketch of a literally expansive geography of the heart. Hermia extends Piñeiro’s style in both place and language: much of the film takes place in New York City and it offers much more English-language dialogue, both of which might help it win the wider audiences his work warrants. Although it might be criticised as frivolously romantic – much as Rohmer, Linklater and Almodóvar (all would seem influences here) might similarly be cited – Hermia & Helena takes up a topic for our time, the way that young people, especially early stage creatives and students, move around the world between and among a network of global cities, struggling to navigate this complex topographically emotionally as well as physically. It may not be news that we inhabit a world of networked cities, where the compression of space and time among those nodal points can be breathtaking – New York is closer to Buenos Aires, observes one character, than to Montana – but Piñeiro explores his character’s mental maps with an emotional proximity and psychological epiphany rare in contemporary cinema. Working with many actors from his usual ensemble (Agustina Muñoz, Julián Larquier Tellarini), the performances are always engaging, even entrancing.
In her characteristically elliptical but ultimately arresting Der traumhafte Weg (The Dreamed Way), Angela Schanelec offers viewers only wispy linkages in an another otherwise dispersive plot: the momentous touch of hands amid pained isolation; the abrupt beauty of a song cutting heavy silence; the naturalistic acting of dogs next to the studied stylised performances of humans. They all seem to be hints of a better, dreamed world whose presence, and understanding, remains utterly elusive to those inhabiting it. Beginning in 1984 in Greece – during European elections there, as broad banners and protest singing indicate – a vacation romance between a German woman and a Brit morphs (perhaps ending, perhaps lingering) when he has to return to his incapacitated mother back in the UK. Schanelec then skips abruptly ahead to 1989 and finally into more recent, post-2006 times, but the legibility of these temporal leaps and lurches proves opaque because many of the characters appear identical – identical in hair, clothes and lack of affect – in the various historical moments; these sundry moments are more registered and memorialised in architecture and background news media. Toward the end, in our more or less contemporary moment in Berlin, the couple encounters each other again, with their future and apparently past still very open. Schanelec’s films have long played at the edges of classical narrative, with, for example, unannounced changes in place and time (cf. her inspired Marseille, 2004). But The Dreamed Path moves around in historical time in ways that are innovative for her cinema as well as for the Berlin School with which her films are usually grouped. Although there has been a recent trend within the Berlin School toward historical material – evidenced in Petzold’s Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014) – nothing would have prepared for Schanelec’s more radical becoming unstuck in time. Schanelec’s international but intracontinental romance, the backdrop of Greek politics, and then the 1989 refugee exodus from East Germany all hint at a post-war and present-day Europe, and putative European unity, struggling to cohere when time itself is impossible to predict or even to comprehend.
Also addressing a historical watershed – and ruminating on its relationship to a starkly diverging present – is Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Dao Khanong (By the Time It Gets Dark). In an intriguing parallel to Dreamed Path, Dao Khanong also plays with film form in pursuit of history and its ever loosening links to today, similarly using outsiders to decentre and complicate conventional historical narratives. While Schanelec sublates time for her characters by maintaining hair and costume against the grain of passing time – conjuring a surprisingly eerie and uncanny effect – Anocha nests a historical film within a film, recalling Atom Egoyan’s Ararat (2002), to consider a historical moment of national trauma and how the present can comprehend it. In the film’s first part, the fictional filmmaker has brought a lead protester to a country house to interview her about her leadership during a 1976 student uprising (and resulting massacre, the year of Anocha’s birth), with the aim of completing a film script about those times. As in Ararat, both private affinities and public dimensions matter: apparent memory-based flashback, interwoven with an intimate interview, abruptly become a film shoot emphasising the artificiality and manipulability of both film and human memory. From there, however, Anocha radicalises her investigation even further by departing this fairly coherent plotting in favour of people (perhaps) working on and around the film with a film, examining their work, struggles, and indulgences in contemporary economy. Other modes of film- and media-manufacture are foregrounded through celebrity actors, their hangers-on, and even the people who wait on them at cafes and restaurants. As in other recent Thai cinema, the dizzying arc of rural life to the modern city helps negotiate the history the film is at pains to approach. The film grows perhaps too challengingly dispersive by the end, but does so largely by dint of its considerable ambition.
Milagros Mummunthaler won the Golden Leopard award at Locarno five years ago with her previous feature Abrir puertas y ventanas (Back to Stay, 2011), a meticulous study of family dynamics by way of three quirky sisters, and her La idea de un lago (The Idea of a Lake) is likewise carefully observed and deliberately paced, but this time on a higher-stakes canvas on which family complexity dovetails with a nation’s painful politics and haunted history. The film focuses on Ines, a photographer who is aiming to finish a project before the birth of her first baby, an undertaking that loops if not obsessively, then emphatically back to her family’s pained past. A double outsider as political victim and then within her own family, Ines’s photos focus on her family’s summer vacations on a lovely lake in southern Argentina, to which her parents, brother, and she would drive from Buenos Aires each summer. Although breathtaking in its mountain laden landscape and delightful in its cabin-casual domesticity, the setting proves now, looking back, both magical and painful, since these trips afford Ines her most vivid memories of her father, disappeared in 1977 during Argentina’s “Dirty War”. It was also on these trips that she can now recall sensing that they were being watched by shadowy political enemies, lurking at night or on an island barely visible on the horizon, memories that capture the combination of joyful abandon and uncanny coincidence of childhood that here intersect a national tragedy.
Mapping a very different but nonetheless distant geography of outsiders, Rita Azevedo Gomes’s Correspondências (Correspondences) offers a dense, often moving, sometimes perplexing window into a very different milieu of mobility. The occasionally fictional film essay takes as its point of departure the correspondence between the Portuguese poets Sophie de Mello Breyner and Jorge de Sena, the latter of whom left Portugal in 1959 largely because of the oppressive political atmosphere under Salazar. He hardly finds happiness elsewhere, even as he and his wife drift to Brazil, Wisconsin, and occasionally back to Europe. Gomes’s dexterous weave of their letters and poetry is read both by figures on screen and in voiceover elliptically narrating often breathtaking images of both Portugal and the many faraway places (Greece, Italy, Brazil, the US) that the two visited and/or deploy in their poetry. Some of the images are wondrous – a recurring one of an empty swing, a wide assortment of the many shades of ocean so central to Portuguese history — while other images, especially those with contemporary actors and musicians, are uneven, sometimes simply inscrutable. Even if the visualisation of the rich texts sometimes proves confusing, it nonetheless feels a privilege to be in the presence (and then thematised absence) of such pointed observers and keen consciousnesses, all underscoring how art may be fundamentally about absence, isolation, and reaching out in the wake of them.
In Glory, the outsider is an indigent and modest Bulgarian railway lineman Tzanko Petrov, who lives an abrupt kleptocracy picaresque: one moment, he is struggling to make ends meet for him and his Steinbeckian pet rabbits, the next he is a televised hero meeting the nation’s minister of transportation, only to be laid low again when he decides to publicise the theft of public assets from the country’s railroad. Tzanko’s ups and down, which only continue from there, underscore the abiding unpredictability of some post-Soviet states, but also highlight how that unpredictability lucratively serves unscrupulous parties. This is not merely some coincidental (and entertaining) oscillation in the chaotic socio-economy as these countries transition to EU-oriented economy (and subsidies). Rather the film plays out between competing metteurs-en-scene of the Tzanko phenomenon, or, rather, a metteur-en-scene investigative journalist who wants to expose the ministry’s corruption vs. a metteuse-en-scene who, always turned out and wielding multiple cell-phones, heads the ministry’s public relations department. A woman always on the move – even when she and her partner are supposed to be listening to her gynecologist discuss freezing her embryos – she is a quick and (at times too easy) contrast to the old-world, but painfully naive Tzanko . Her media chess game with the investigative journalist places the pawn Tzanko squarely in the dangerous middle of the post-Soviet board. Even if occasionally overly facile in its clarion morality tale, the performances are convincing in a number of tricky roles, its direction restrained enough where it should be, despite the prevailing, obvious indignity.
Made very much in the mode of the Dardenne brothers’ films about the struggle of those at the bottom of the employment pyramid – it is set in Dortmund, only a couple of hundred kilometers from the Dardennes’ home and favoured location of Seraing – Michael Koch’s Marija, if not charting entirely new waters, is anchored by impressive performances by Margarita Breitkreiz as the eponymous Ukrainian immigrant and German/Austrian regular (and regularly memorable) Georg Friedrich as her maybe employer, maybe boyfriend. Koch’s prologue-like opening immediately invokes the milieu and techniques of the Dardennes, with a handheld camera tracking Marija through the (somewhat) downtrodden streets of Dortmund, and a modest place of employment at which she steals (à la Promesse), and then a Rosetta-romp through (here hotel) corridors to attack a co-worker who has crossed her. When the violence (like Rosetta) hardly helps her keep her job, viewers learn of a long-term plan to start a hair-salon. Although Koch’s approach does admirably demonstrate in lingering but watchable close-ups and medium shots the struggles of immigrants into one of Europe’s richest countries, Koch does not quite manage the searing, shocking drama the Dardenne’s manage to conjure in their films (many of the early films are, after all, about murder). The drama here is more from the ineluctable, undistinguishable alloy of love and money in such a world, recalling the cinema of another Dardenne fan, Christian Petzold, although lacking the latter’s investigation of the fantasy world of the downtrodden. Nonetheless, Koch’s film underscores the complexity of the outsider position important throughout many of the films this year’s festival: viewers can empathise with Marija’s ostracized perspective while also recognising the untidy ends being an outsider can unfortunately lead.
Locarno Film Festival
3-13 August 2016
Festival website: http://www.pardolive.ch/pardo/festival-del-film-locarno