On the seventieth anniversary of the Locarno Film Festival, the festival reinvented, or, rather, reintroduced itself in several intriguing ways. Much of the early talk this year concerned the completion of a new “Palazzo del Cinema” near the winding mouth of the Piazza Grande, the festival’s trademark, open-air venue for some 8,000 viewers. The new, US$35m Palazzo was by all accounts a success, not least because it introduced three much needed modern cinemas to a festival desperately in need of them (veterans of La Sala and especially the unpoetically dubbed L’altra Sala will know what I mean). The Palazzo also created a major architectural statement amid the wealthy town’s somewhat Manichean mixture of either well-groomed Italianate historical or ultra-modern Swiss edifices. A local told me the city had resisted the demolition of the building on the Palazzo’s site because it had been the elementary school where most of the city’s elites had done their primary schooling. Retaining but transforming the local landmark, Alejandro Zaera-Polo Architecture added what seems a shimmering, gold crown to the stately historical building, while the completely new interior, with café and Cassa, dazzles entirely golden – a reference, perhaps, to the festival’s mascot, a bright yellow leopard, so that one enters the Palazzo as one might the belly of the beast.
It might take a while to realise, but the glimmering, floating shingles of the Palazzo’s upper extremity undulate in the wind, creating a dynamic contrast between the building’s heavy stone (a typicality for the Ticino canton) and its breezy ethereality. This dynamism between the foundationally staid and ephemeral ethereality befits the locational and temporal oscillation at work in any festival, but perhaps especially in Locarno. It is one of the oldest in Europe but tries to maintain itself as a festival of youth, discovery, and unalloyed allegiance to the artistically ambitious. Even if Variety reported, as it did this anniversary year, that the festival remains one of the most important European festivals for business dealings, Locarno still prides itself on uncovering new talent and on promoting films whose ambitions seem primarily an afterlife on the fall festival circuit, half as commercially long but twice as artistically brightness.
Another way in which Locarno reintroduced itself for its seventieth edition reinforces such artistic ambitions: the festival was provocatively renamed unto rebranding, with the removal of “Film” from its title. What was the Locarno Festival del Film has become merely the Locarno Festival, a titular transformation (one echoing Cannes’) that was apparently resisted by festival president Marco Solari. Solari, per the cultural hierarchies of major festivals, ultimately deferred to the festival’s artistic director Carlos Chatrian. Officially, the change was not so much a nod to the dubious future of film in the face of the juggernaut revolution of cultural digitisation – although one presumes that was at play at some level – as a means to promote Locarno’s deliberate diversifications of its artistic offerings, including a now regular March mini-festival, lectures, performances, and other creative endeavours in addition to its festive films. Such a contradictory development – an expensive, lovely building featuring primarily cinemas while dispensing with film in the festival name – materialises the pressures under which festivals find themselves at this fraught moment for conventional cinema. Amid such developments, the festival’s jury seemed to stick largely to Locarno’s traditional guns, with the three major awards going to auteurist works that largely defy the commercial pressures on cinema at a moment that it is being overwhelmed by streaming subscription services like Netflix and Amazon (and soon Disney). In fact, the surprise winner of the top prize was a film prepared for this year’s Documenta exhibition in Kassel, underscoring the re-dubbed festival’s once and future links to the art world.
This year’s 70th anniversary Golden Leopard went to Wang Bing’s Mrs. Fang and fits the profile of a non-commercially committed auteur on the rise on the festival circuit, thus in the winning vein of Albert Serra (2015) or Lav Diaz (2014). As with Serra and Diaz, one suspects the prize was proffered partially for Wang Bing’s work in general, to reward an auteur in the ascendancy, since the film itself, to me at least, did not seem the strongest in the competition – it is not so much undeserving as perhaps not the most deserving. The first image the film offers frames the eponymous Mrs. Fang in a doorway of a modest apartment, an image at once banal but simultaneously searingly symbolic. The doorway suggests the moving duality of the film in general, namely, the transitional spaces of a modest domesticity with predictable patterns of life and death amid China’s tectonic socio-economic transformations. Shortly thereafter, viewers begin to realise that Mrs. Fang will spend most of the film of which she is the subject, and perhaps hero, bed-ridden, supine, and barely conscious. Her daughter is then imaged in a doorway as well – the doorway is not only the passage from life to death, as Mrs. Fang (suffering from advanced Alzheimers) will surely transition, but also the transition of generations and the society in general. Visually most memorable, aside from the lingering shots of Mrs. Fang on her bed, is small-boat night fishing, the images of which clash starkly with the cultivated iconography of soaring skyscrapers amid dense transit works in China’s gleaming new cities. Survival seems at stake not only for Mrs. Fang, but for an entire way of life that the film observes, as in many of Wang Bing’s films, meticulously and unsentimentally.
Two later scenes create the plot’s complicating events. First, viewers learn of Mrs. Fang’s struggles with her family and her intent to divorce at one point, until, apparently, her husband violently abuses her, compelling her to stay. Soon thereafter, one of the middle-aged relatives laments how her only grandson, Weiwei, has left her bedside, allowed to do so by his parents, so that he presumably will not be present when his grandmother dies. Recalling that she held him every day when he was a child, he insists on getting this off his chest while the others lament there is little point in talking about it and encourage him to just have a drink. Both scenes underscore the film’s refusal to avert its gaze from the brutality of her failing body or from epochal changes reverberating as well through family. The bleak banality of death is carefully interwoven with both generational succession and historical change – important themes fitting the festival’s anniversary edition that recur throughout the international competition.
The Special Jury (second place) prize went to Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas’s Good Manners (As boas manieras), an entertaining exercise in campy horror genre as social-critique. The film starts with a premise reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby but then asks: what if the misbegotten baby were to be born (and conveniently kill its perplexed mother) mid-mmadovie, with the rest of the plot opening up as the little beast’s oyster? From its first sequence, the film uses the horror genre’s picaresque potential to explore the severe ups and downs of Sao Paolo: Clara, an African-Brazilian would-be nurse, interviews to nanny for a rich white woman who turns out to be a single mother-to-be, Ana. Staring wide-eyed at the luxury apartment with broad downtown views and kitschy artificial fireplace, Clara is given the job when she helps Ana with suspiciously severe pregnancy pangs. The curious pains hint at an unusual carrying to semi-term with which Clara will help in unexpected ways: Clara and Ana found a deep friendship and then start a sexual relationship. But Ana seems to be possessed in their erotic play, as she doth bite too much, and Clara starts to follow Ana on her full-moon meanderings, during which her pregnancy cravings drive her to snack on local feral animals. Ana admits to Clara that her peculiar pregnancy derives from a stranger, Jorge Mario, whom she met at a bar, an encounter she narrates in yet another amusingly campy register via a series of drawings that reveal Jorge Mario as werewolf but also in priest’s collar. At the next full moon, however, little Joel bursts out of his mother belly Alien-style (and looking like the Eraserhead baby if it donned a werewolf’s budding coat, so Dutra and Rojas steal from the disgusting best). In a complicating generational development, Clara flees with the wolf-like newborn – unable to abandon him, she raises him back in her modest abode, with their future deliciously unclear (if you know what I mean).
The Best Director’s prize went to French veteran F.J. Ossang for his 9 Fingers (9 doigts), whose dense dialogue betrays Ossang’s philosophical background and interests. Near its beginning, the retro-noir 9 Fingers cites Lady from Shanghai’s memorable aquarium sequence, with some of its principals staring at the larger-than-life, uncannily amplified fish in murky tanks. In Welles’s classic, the fish establish a running metaphor for sharks eating each other and even themselves, and 9 Fingers emulates this inscrutable aggression unto self-destruction among its key characters. I use the phrase “retro-noir” rather than neo-noir advisedly: the film offers a retro look and approach not only in its black and white, but also in its oneiric, labyrinthine plotting. Even if the film is citing noir, it is notable that these now classics were set in their own present moment and made explicit reference to their contemporary context, whereas 9 Fingers does so only in highly abstracted ways – when the film refers to the assassination by (Kiss Me Deadly-evoking) polonium of the “Russian in London” or to a massive island of waste floating in the ocean, it comes more as curious surprise than resonant assertion. The emulation of the historical noir suggests that shark-infested cultural pessimism befits our relentlessly polluting, neoliberal era – it’s not only a dog-eat-dog, but a dog-eating-its-own-tail world – but this sensibility remains altogether too removed from the film’s overburdened dialogue. And many noirs had much more interesting female characters railing against the staid socio-economic order of their day, while 9 Fingers leaves the femme fatale at the level primarily of (Weimar-vamp) image. This all renders the film seeming too much an exercise in cleverly-conceived cinephilia (something to which jury members Olivier Assayas and Miguel Gomes are certainly no strangers), rather than an aesthetic breakthrough.
The prize for best female performance went to another French film playing with the past as it moves forward, to Isabelle Huppert in Serge Bozon’s unconvincing Madame Hyde. Perhaps contemporary art cinema’s dominant female actor (in so many ways), Isabelle Huppert, plays, at least initially, against type in Hyde as a terrorised and timid teacher at a technical high school. Ripe for a pedagogical make-over, “Madame Géquil” (AKA Jekyll) has an electrical accident shocking herself and viewers, and thereafter develops a (literally) glowing second personality as Ms. Hyde, who is soon igniting one of her students and seriously singeing another (as well as two unsuspecting canines that the kinder, gentler Géquil used to feed). Parallel to Good Manners, altogether less entertaining and insightful, Madame Hyde also uses genres and their abiding myths to engage contemporary social contexts, here the often invoked milieu of multicultural French schools. One does have to wonder, however, if flags were ever raised about an ethnic French teacher literally burning a number of pupils of colour. One has to assume that Huppert’s auteur-cinema star power drove the film into competition at Locarno, because otherwise it seemed to be playing out of its league.
The prize for best male performance went to Elliott Grosset Hove for his young, enterprising, and highly erratic Emil in the beautifully bleak Winter Brothers. The Danish Brothers’ lengthy dialogue-less opening recalls the celebrated introduction of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), similarly lodging viewers in the terrifying tunnels of both earth and mind: brutal conditions at an eastern Danish industrial mine are reflected in the brutal psychologies it produces in the brothers Emil and Johan (Simon Sears). The intimate relationship of body to dirt of an earlier era, however, is now mediated by enormous, loud, dehumanising machines that masticate their way through the mine material and dwarf the ghostly workers tending them (tending them quaintly with hoes, as if it were a long lost garden). And at this late, rather than high, capitalist point, Emil is left to supplement his low-level-employee income with highly intoxicating, even hallucinatory homebrews bred of stolen industrial chemicals, a grotesque sort of Breaking-Bad entrepreneurship that kills one of his co-workers and likely increasingly distorts his own mind. His enterprising activities also result in one of the most brutal interrogation and ultimately torture scenes I can recall, with a big company’s iron fist in the velvet gloves of corporate grooming of both body and mind. In such a bleak world, the solidarity of the workers, including the eponymous brothers, would seem to be the only relief, but, not surprisingly, that is also ruined, not least by the only female present, imaged memorably inside a grimy window lachrymose with rain and grimly visible from the mine’s lunar-like planes. Emil’s Moebius-like mind turns increasingly to the rifle that he accepted as debt repayment for his homebrews, but the film rejects any facile, fateful amok running, preferring a sequence in which he merely breaks a window in a bizarrely creative fashion. The films’ rumination on land, earth, and body is fascinating and completely memorable, if not very marketable.
The dynamics and decisions of juries are often inscrutable to outsiders, and I have to admit surprise that two of the strongest films of the competition left Locarno empty-handed. Wajib refers to duty in Arabic, and Annemarie Jacir’s aching and arresting film by that name explores the way that multiple duties operate on both Arab father Abu Shadi (Mohammad Bakri) and son Shadi (Saleh Bakri) in the Israeli city of Nazareth. The film cleverly uses the upcoming wedding of their daughter/sister as an occasion to explore the community of Arabs in the famed Christ hometown (but known as the Arab capital of Israel): apparently, the tradition there is for wedding invitations to be hand delivered to all invitees, so son Shadi has returned home from Italy to drive his school-teacher father on this memorable delivery route around the community in which Shadi grew up but then left. There is the expected range of responses from relatives and friends, querying Shadi’s own wedding plans and exercising pressure to return to their home from the obvious comforts (and trendy clothes) of living abroad. Over the course of their route, it becomes clear what a bedrock of the community his school-teacher father is – he is greeted warmly everywhere, even by those he designates the dumbest in class. He stayed to raise his son and daughter when their mother ran off with a lover to live abroad. Wajib manages a considerable challenge with amusing and even moving aplomb, treating the politics of the region with an admirable light touch, one that does justice to the labyrinthine psychologies required to negotiate the complex political and social situation. The tension between father and son cleverly allows for that: if the father accepts that he will have to work with Jewish Israelis in the city’s civic institutions, the son, living abroad, can afford to have a holier-than-father attitude about collaborating with those who surveil their schools. The real life father and son acting team makes for fascinating, moving watching.
In a dense but fascinating layering of past time via generation in his Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, Travis Wilkerson observes a revealing discrepancy in his family’s home-movies from 1946 and 1953. In the 1946 footage, he notes, his great-grandfather S.E. Branch looks cagey and worried, but by 1953 he looked a different, confident man, as if he had gotten away with something. And get away with something indeed he did, namely, murder. S.E. Branch owned and ran a small grocery in southern Alabama, and he shot and killed Bill Spann, a local African American. The circumstances are more than murky, and Wilkerson takes it upon himself to find out more in this rich film essay about his family’s past and how it is entwined with the legacy of racial violence that Wilkerson connects directly to the continued killing of African Americans under suspicious circumstances (and to the continued acquittals of whites committing the acts). Branch noted in his press conference that he felt that the U.S. has a tendency to avoid self-examination and critique, both historically and in its present behaviour. With this in mind, he thought he should undertake this kind of archaeological-critical digging in his own family because the past is abidingly present today, to which his film bears powerful witness. For instance, he finds that the only one of his aunts still alive at the time of the murder has been active in the “Southern National Network”, a white nationalist/supremacist movement that he shoots in a shocking commemoration of the Confederacy. These places of memory, as Pierre Nora has called them, are definitely not done and dead, but continue to inform collective identity in untold ways (the Charlottesville protest coincidentally happened on the closing Saturday of the festival). The filmmaking is ambitious, intriguing, and powerful, with a rejection of facile realism and a preference for stylisation that make it, in both aesthetic approach and topical content, far more than the usual documentary.
An uninvited, unwanted ghost from the past leads to both philosophical reflection and entertaining sarcasm in Andrei Cretulescu’s Charleston. Soon after his wife Iolona is struck and killed on a downtown street, widower Alexandru (Serban Pavlu) receives a visit from a surprise lover, Sebastian (Radu Iacoban), with whom she was having an affair in the last five months of her life (in fact, she was likely rushing to meet him when she was struck by a commercial van). Although an intriguing premise – even the van-struck past is never as dead as it seems – it would normally be difficult for the two to develop any kind of substantive relationship. But Sebastian is hardly a gloating lothario, but rather a nebbish nerd who writes science fiction and who does not have the emotional intelligence to leave Alexandru to his alcohol-lubricated mourning. For Sebastian, the time spent with Iolona was the best of his life, times shared with a fleeting someone who has terrifyingly just disappeared. The film is both funny and moving, with some real gem scenes, including a lunchtime visit to Iolona’s petty-bourgeois parents that offers a hilarious window into her ennui. The curious title is reminiscent of ATTENBERG (Athina Rachel Tsangari, 2010), a mispronunciation and/or misunderstanding of global Anglo-culture – the gaps that open up in communication and transmission in our too-fast global age – and the film is full of communicatively entertaining misunderstandings on both character’s sides.
In an early scene of the only Swiss entry in the international competition, Dominik Locher’s Goliath, Jessy (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) produces a bloody gash in the forehead of her life-partner David (Sven Schelker) and then snaps some pictures of his oozing wound. She is a would-be make-up artist working on her portfolio, but the scenario is played only partially for laughs: already at this early point in the film, the two have been consistently injuring each other as they face having a first child together. Much of the violence is verbal, but an early spell on a local train after a night of clubbing has spooked David: a much bigger man gut punches pregnant Jessy’s belly and then chase them down the aisles, also belting David repeatedly in the face. Playing on his feelings of inadequacy as masculine protector and provider, David decides to bulk up with the help of anabolic steroids. Although the story seems at moments a bit obvious, even pedantic (yes, steroids are bad for you), the filmmaking is highly effective in capturing the doldrums of lower-middle-class central European life. With the struggle to gain a foothold amid broken families, to negotiate intergenerational angst, to break into the well-paid but still rigid workforce, Goliath traces the willful but ill-devised transformation of a person under late-capitalist pressure to look good and feel powerful. Most impressive in the film are the performances by two of the younger generation of German-speaking actors, Bauer and Schelker. Having played the memorable Stella in Petzold’s Barbara, Bauer will soon star in the German director’s Transit, a German-French coproduction based on the (justly) celebrated refugee novel by Anna Seghers and shot in Marseille. Schelker attracted attention as a transvestite for whom a nebbish middle-class teacher falls in Der Kreis (The Circle, Stefan Haupt, 2014) and proves once again highly arresting here.
In Denis Côté’s Ta peau si lisse (A Skin So Soft), the dermatological surface, even when stretched to breaking, can be quite deceiving. The film focuses on the much tanned and lotion lathered and above all overly taunt skin of a group of body builders, in francophone Canada. Côté’s skilled observational camera and revealing editing showing a diversity of men and their concerns and interests, even if their musculature is a shared obsession. Côté seems committed to staying at the surface of the film’s emphatic skins, rejecting psychologising the men’s unusual (and time-consuming and expensive) endeavours. Provocatively, none of the principals seems excessively narcissistic: one of the men (with an elaborate beard) admits he looks like a “psycho” when he smiles when flexing. A hilarious follow-up shot confirms his intuition. The film seems more committed to underscoring the hard work that goes into these body images, including not only the unimaginably brutal workouts but also the careful, even forced eating – in one memorable early scene, one of the men seems to be forcing himself to chew through unpleasant repast and then downing a coterie of pills, whose exact origins the film also rejects investigating. The film challenges most presumptions, with an ethnic array of individuals as well as a couple of doting father figures, aging body builders who gently and affirmatively help train younger charges (as well as one’s working as some kind of new agey therapist for the bodily laity). The film even offers a depressive wrestler/strong man who (some time after he pulls a big rig in front of a small but cheering crowd) is seen brooding at home while his wife and child trying to cheer him up.
One of the cinephilic peculiarities, and pleasures, of this year’s festival was the newly edited version of a series of shorts that the Chilean great Raul Ruiz shot in 1990, entitled La telenovela errante or, less poetically, A Wandering Soap Opera. Ruiz died in 2011, but his widow Valeria Sarmiento has edited the fragments into a (short-)feature length episodic work. In a series of typically hilarious and insightful episodes of this telenovela, Ruiz deploys the parameters of the soapy form to absurdist effect. He was back in Chile after Pinochet stepped down as president and many of the soaps have a political subtext or even foreground. For example, on the opening “day”, a soap-opera surreal seduction of a sister-in-law includes the declaration of love for her left leg over her right, and her subsequent querying the precise classification of her seducer’s left-wing inclinations. Socialist, we hear, as does his cuckolded brother, who has been eavesdropping nearby through a well-placed suitcase (on his shoulder). In a later episode, two car-riding toughs are heatedly debating the rampant use of English in their region, but are then melodramatically murdered. The murderers subsequently debate what to put in their political proclamation to be left at the crime scene – a debate about political manifestoes that unfolds until they are, in turn, summarily shot by another pair with another proclamation, etc. The deadpan mixing of television bathos with revolutionary politics proves surprisingly amusing throughout, and, in such absurdist scenarios, Ruiz seems to be offering a trenchant media critique as well, reflecting on the soap-opera-ification of consciousness through popular media, including of politics (as we now know too well).
It was, however, rather surprising Telenovela was in competition, given that its content was from 1990s. But perhaps it can also be regarded as revealing for the festival as a whole, in both its longer arc and present moment: a typically artistically and auteurist step into quasi-television from the venerable festival in its 70th edition. On other hand, the presence of a somewhat antiquated work like Telenovela underscores how the competition may not have been the strongest in recent years – there was no breathtaking breakthrough like Lav Diaz’s From What Came Before (2014) or João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist (2016). And the best of this year’s competition, (in my opinion) like Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun? and Jacir’s Wajib, were not helped by the jury’s passing over them entirely. But Ruiz, as well as winners like Diaz, Rodrigues and Wang Bing, all underscore how the festival can still function in the crowded and increasingly streaming world cinema system, to curate and promote auteurist work as singular signals among the ever-rising digital noise. Telenovela brought back into the competition a director who won the Golden Leopard in 1969 with his debut feature, Tres tristes tigres (Three Sad Tigers), one of Locarno’s many discoveries for the ages.
Locarno Film Festival
2-12 August 2017
Festival website: https://pardo.ch/pardo/festival-del-film-locarno/home.html