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This summer the Locarno Film Festival and its Piazza Grande finally got their colours back. The giant screen in the piazza lit up again and the public flocked enthusiastically to its legendary screenings under the stars. After its last edition, extensively limited and modified in a digital form under the rubric “For the Future of Films” due to the pandemic, and the unexpected departure of its artistic director Lili Hinstin, the event has decidedly moved on to steadier ground.

With the appointment of its new artistic director Giona A. Nazzaro, the festival looked with fresh enthusiasm to the future. On the strength of his great artistic experience, cinephile taste and subtle critical sense, he had a clear vision of what the Locarno Film Festival should be: “a living, free, open, adventurous event, that aims to explore cinema!”, as he passionately stated from the stage during the opening ceremony. In a still tense context due to the pandemic, Nazzaro had to face several obstacles. On the one hand, Locarno’s being tightly (and exceptionally) sandwiched in the middle of the two biggest European festivals, Cannes and Venice, may have created some challenges in the field of programming. On the other hand, changes in film-going under the pandemic, which have given rise to a chiefly individual form of film experience, have also opened the door to a more radical questioning concerning the future and the very meaning of a major public event such as a festival itself. Faced with these multiple pitfalls, the new artistic director’s main goal was to win back the festival’s “entire” audience, as he said. His weapon was a program that is, according to his own formula: fun and ambitious, demanding and popular at the same time.

Structurally, the festival, which showcased 209 films, did not undergo spectacular changes, yet some limited but significant adjustments took place. Two new strands were created: Corti d’autore, dedicated to short films by renowned filmmakers that was included in the Pardi di domain section, and the Locarno Kids Screenings strand offered, among others, a stellar Piazza Grande experience, with Mamoru Hosoda’s splendid film: Belle: Ryū to sobakasu no hime. Indeed, the decision to abandon the Moving Ahead section, traditionally dedicated to film’s artistic frontiers, was controversial. Certainly, by inviting a few popular films into the competitive sections and by removing the Moving Ahead slot, Nazzaro may have offended some sensibilities, or dampened some expectations. However, this criticism possibly stems from a preconceived idea of what the festival’s identity should be. Locarno’s identity is in the process of being reshaped, suggesting us a less elitist and more open model motivated by a deep desire for cinema, a popular art par excellence, and the wish to find all its audiences once again in a burst of renewed enthusiasm. Still, for a more accurate assessment, we will have to wait for Locarno’s next edition, thus giving the new artistic director and his selection committee the opportunity to fully develop their idea of the festival. Far beyond its competitive sections, Locarno Film Festival is a huge event teeming with activities, tributes to various personalities and guests of honor. I would like to mention one in particular: John Landis (honoured with the Pardo d’onore award), who captivated the Piazza Grande with his perspicacity and legendary sense of humour during his presentation for the screening of his National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), a true gem of 1970s American comedy, featuring an unbridled John Belushi at his very best. 

Not to be missed, the retrospective curated by Roberto Turigliatto, was dedicated this year to the great master of Italian cinema, Alberto Lattuada. To end with, continuing its journey of discovery and support of third world cinema, the vibrant Open Doors section successfully completed its cycle dedicated to the countries of South-East Asia. Most importantly, the event was impeccably organised with respect to the anti-Covid regulations; the access to theatres, limited to fifty per cent of their capacity and exclusively granted through online booking, was smooth, sanitary controls fast and efficient, and the use of masks respected everywhere. Of course, due to health restrictions, and as with pretty much every festival in 2021, a part of the public was missing. However, a digital version of the festival was made available again, opening up the program, for professionals, to a global vision beyond Switzerland’s geographical boundaries.

In this report I mainly explore the competitive sections of the festival, where a series of remarkable feature films, quite different in genre, style and content, impressed me with their rigour, beauty and originality. These films point to the future of the festival.

A New Old Play

Ingenuity and a truly stirring approach distinguish Qiu Jiongjigong’s splendid first feature film and the Concorso internazionale (International Competition) special jury prize winner, Jiao ma tang hui (A New Old Play). In his film, which runs over 179 minutes, director Qiu creates a huge epochal fresco and revives the ancient Sichuan Opera tradition with the magic touch of a modern-day Méliès. Retracing Quifu the clown’s restless life, the film’s narrative take us on a wondrous ride through the tumultuous events that marked China’s history in the last century. Starting from the creation of the New-New troupe and theatre school by legendary impresario and former general Pocky in the 1920s, the plot moves through the Sino-Japanese War, the 1945 armistice and the troupe’s brief exile to Taiwan. It then shifts to the Nationalist-Communist conflict, the People’s Liberation Army and the new Communist era, depicting reforms, starvation, the regime’s purges, the condemnations and rehabilitations of the Cultural Revolution, to finally arrive at the crucial moment of its protagonist’s death. For visual artist, photographer and documentary filmmaker Qiu Jiongjigong, who grew up in the Sichuan Opera theatre, this film is not solely an ambitious and unique project but also a true labour of love and passionate homage to the art of his grandfather, the real-life clown Quifu. 

“A new play always tells an ancient tale,” as one character says. The film truly celebrates the power of evocation in one long, melancholic look back before the final curtain falls definitely and oblivion forever covers everything that once took centre stage. Caught in a limbo between life and death, waiting to be ferried to the realm of the afterlife, the protagonist Quifu, brilliantly played by Yi Sicheng, recalls his past life one last time before eating Mother Meng’s Soup of Oblivion. As he speaks, we see how Qui, an orphan determined to survive, manages to be accepted in the New-New troupe, learning the trade of a clown at a very young age. During his long and adventurous life, Quifu, who never abandoned his art, experienced, on an ever-changing theatre stage, all the hardships and vicissitudes that were to assail his country. As onstage performances and everyday life are continually blended, a multitude of colourful characters revolve around him, male and females actors, the troupe’s founder Pocky (played the director’s father Qui Zhimin), teachers, primadonnas, boys and girls learning the art, spectators, stage technicians, the troupe’s mute cook Crooky, two spirits from hell, and also officials, soldiers of all sorts, children, an abandoned baby and, unfailingly, death, playfully circling among the living souls throughout the whole play to remind us that she is our most faithful companion in life. Steeped in a slightly fairytale atmosphere, the film’s tone is affectionate and humorous. Even the most cruelly dramatic events are portrayed without excessive pathos, with a sort of resignation truthfully depicting the attitude of those who can do no more than bow to the course of history. Still, when it comes to the description of “new man in a new society”, in its own playful way, the film does not conceal its criticism and irony, and eventually turns into a biting satire. Filmed in a studio, with an openly theatrical, anti-naturalistic aesthetic – at one point we see a character flying through the skies clinging to his umbrella – A New Old Play involves mime, song, music, painting, shadow theatre, photography and all the cultural richness of Sichuan opera. In a mise-en-scène dominated by delicate pastel colours, every single detail is perfectly accurate and handmade. Yet the most striking visual element of this perfectly crafted work is its camera movements: while close ups are used only in crucial moments to focus on a particular situation, director Qui, inspired by Chinese classical iconography, mostly favours frontal takes with very little depth. While the characters are often confined to a narrow strip of space, almost on the edge of the stage, the camera moves from left to right and vice versa using soft lateral tracks, skillfully evoking the unstoppable flow of time. 

Espíritu sagrado 

The Competition’s diversity was particularly striking in the shift from this stylised representation of the Sichuan opera to Espíritu Sagrado’s poised realistic depiction of everyday life in a Spanish town.  Chema García Ibarra’s debut feature film and the winner of a special mention in this section is a quietly disquieting work and certainly one of the most remarkably original new entries in Locarno’s main competition. The film begins in a seemingly meek manner, with a close-up on a little girl reading her essay in catechism class. With zeal and seriousness, she tells her audience that handicapped children are luckier than the others, because no one will ever think of kidnapping them. The child is Verónica (Llum Arqués), the film’s little protagonist and the twin sister of Vanessa, who disappeared without a trace a month earlier. In fact, right from the first sequences, the cunning screenplay gives enough clues to solve the enigma of the child’s disappearance, but these clues, surfacing almost incidentally, are carried away by the flow of the story without leaving any substantial trace, just like the crime that was perpetrated. Chema Ibarra manages to make us slip into credulity, just as José Manuel (Nacho Fernández), the uncle of the two girls, does in the film. The story takes place in Elche, a provincial town on the Catalan coast and the director’s birthplace, in a working-class milieu described with documentary accuracy. Particularly striking are the film’s placid tone, the deadpan acting, and the almost indolent rhythm with which events unfold. A cloak of resignation envelops the story’s characters, who seek hope and refuge from the harshness of their everyday lives in a world of esoteric and extra-terrestrial beliefs. In his “domestic Science Fiction film” Chema Ibarra manages to capture with disconcerting authenticity and an often-humorous tone the essential layer of extravagance and eccentricity that lies beneath our society’s “rational” life. Essential to the creation of this peculiar atmosphere is a gallery of non-professional actors who wear their roles like a second skin, as well as flawless photography that plunges the scenery in a vivid, slightly unreal light. The story revolves around the disappearance of little Vane and the depiction of her family: Charo (Joanna Valverde) is a young single mother who raises her children with dignity, doing, like many other local women, piecework for a local shoe factory; her brother José Manuel is a quiet and good-natured man, who runs a small bar and is an enthusiastic member of a ufology association; their mother (Rocío Ibáñez) is an elegant woman suffering from Alzheimer’s and, in the past, the most prominent local psychic. 

While Charo, sad and resigned, has her feet on the ground and tries to get by as best she can, José Manuel lives completely lost in his own world populated by extra-terrestrials, hoping to be abducted one day. Once a week he meets with his fellow members of the Ovni Levante ufological association to share information about extra-terrestrial messages. When its charismatic president, Julio-Esposito, suddenly dies and José Manuel has to replace him, everything starts to get out of control. Like leaves scattered in the wind, various disturbing individuals wander around; they are psychics, ufologists or new-age gurus preaching their own truth. Besides, an alarming leitmotif surfaces several times throughout the film: the eye. Whether it is the “third eye” of the esoteric visions, Charo’s mother’s injunction to take particular care of her eyes, or the rumour spread by a neighbour that in a remote Turkish clinic the eyes of kidnapped children are being plucked out by organ-trafficking criminals, does not really matter. The eyes are also, and above all, those of the people who watch and do not see, or do not want to see, like the meek José Manuel, who is deeply convinced of doing good while he is doing evil. At the end, like the mechanism of a Swiss watch – in an incredible crescendo of tension underlined by Wolfgang Riechmann’s unsettling electronic sound – all the scattered clues of the story come together and reveal the bigger picture: while reading the subtitles of a perfectly silent sequence, we finally discover the bitter truth. Chema Ibarra thus creates an exemplary finale, pointing his finger at one of the greatest scourges of our society.

Luzifer

In Peter Brunner’s Luzifer, a local story is also the starting point for an uncompromising confrontation with the state of the world. In recent years the Austrian filmmaker has created an uncompromising and courageous body of work, boldly exploring the painful side of existence. Taking an interest in those individuals who dwell on the extreme fringes of our society, and often casting his gaze on deformed or sick human bodies, he has succeeded, through the poetic force of his images, in reinstating their dignity and beauty. Having graduated under the tutelage of Michael Haneke at the Vienna Film Academy, Brunner has been able to count on the support of another key figure of Austrian cinema, Ulrich Seidl, to produce this, his fourth feature film, presented in competition at Locarno. Luzifer, whose plot is inspired by true events, is perfectly aligned with the director’s previous works, adding a further chapter of dark beauty to his filmography. At the centre of this story, which takes place in a hut high up in the mountains, completely autonomous and cut off from the world, are Maria and her son Johannes, a young man with the mind of a child. Redeemed through the power of faith by her now deceased husband Elias many years earlier, when she was a young alcoholic and drug addict, Maria worships Elias like a saint. Immersed in her own religious world made up of constant prayer and mortification of the flesh, Maria lives in absolute physical and spiritual symbiosis with her son. The bodies of Maria and Johannes are often united in prayer, forming the sign of the cross on top of one another. With their arms open towards Heaven, mother and son invoke the Lord, asking for strength and forgiveness. These two bodies filmed in all their fragile beauty, look like a single two-headed being. Certainly, the boundary between what is licit and what isn’t seems rather blurred in their relationship, but in the religious devotion of Maria (splendidly played by non-professional actress Susanne Jensen) this question is irrelevant. For his part, Johannes (played by Franz Rogowski at the height of his art) is a sensitive and lonely young man, imprisoned in echolalia: mum, dad and devil are the only words he endlessly repeats. In a daily routine of hard work, his only recreation are his birds of prey, which he looks after lovingly in a huge aviary. The film’s trajectory might be described as a fall from Paradise, not due to divine intervention but to the actions of men. 

In perfect harmony with the film’s subject matter, Peter Flinckenberg’s cinematography captures the light and grandiose beauty of the mountains with fluid, sinuous aerial shots, while the majestic sound design by Klaus Kellermann and Manuel Grandpierre makes the tense, threatening atmosphere perfectly palpable. While the first part of the film describes this little lost Eden where mother and son live in a state of autarky, free, following their own rules, the second shows us its slow, progressive destruction. After trying in vain to persuade Maria to sell her hut, a local entrepreneur who wants her land to build a ski lift carries out a series of increasingly violent reprisals. The deafening noise of chainsaws and the insistent buzzing of drones spying on the protagonists’ life repeatedly invades the soundscape; even the forest around Maria’s home has to be cut down to make way for the tourist project. In the film, the ruthless annihilation of Maria’s living space clearly goes hand in hand with a reflection on the destruction of our ecosystem. Luzifer paints a gloomy and alarming picture in this respect. But if the film shows us nature being threatened by man, it also tells us about the need to oppose and resist those who want to exploit it with impunity. Maria and Johannes, united by a visceral love that surpasses death, do resist. Sacrificed at the altar of economic interests, the heroic protagonists of Luzifer shine on their mountain with a last, indelible spark of humanity.

Petite Solange ©2021 Aurora Films

Radically different in style and content, Petite Solange by Axelle Ropert (previously in competition at Locarno in 2016 with La Prunelle de mes yeux [The Apple of My Eye]) offers us a true moment of grace. Rarely has the pain and helplessness of a teenager who sees her happiness shattered by adult decisions been described with such delicacy and modesty. Quietly observing the emotional life of her characters, Axelle Ropert rejects melodrama and chooses sobriety instead. Ropert finds just the right balance, both in the meticulously detailed screenplay and in the performances of her actors who, without any excess, naturally convey the fragile intimacy of family bonds. Petite Solange’s atmosphere has an old-fashioned, discreet charm; the only bombastic aspect of the film – a deliberate choice on the part of the director – is that of its soundtrack, dominated by a somewhat overbearing neo-classical melody composed by Benjamin Esdraffo. By setting her film in Nantes, a pivotal city for French cinema, and in the famous Passage Pommeraye mall, the director undoubtedly evokes the spirit of Jacques Demy. However, in its understated way, Petite Solange is also a tribute to cinema itself. A true cinephile, Axelle Ropert is inspired by the Nouvelle Vague as well as by Italian neo-realism and by Luigi Comencini’s oeuvre, and it is no coincidence that a poster of Incompreso (Misunderstood, 1966) hangs in Solange’s classroom.

Solange is a 13 year-old girl, kind, sensitive, a bit shy but full of life, always smiling and caring. She lives happy and carefree with an expansive and affectionate family: her mother, Aurélia Maserati (Léa Drucker), is a theatre actress who works with a local troupe, her father, Antoine Maserati (Philippe Katerine), owns a musical instrument shop, and her older brother Romain (Grégoire Montana), a serious and reserved boy, is a student. In a kind of prelude, we see Solange crying in class while reading a poem. To explain the reason for her distress, the story picks up a few months earlier, on a bright summer day when family and friends are gathered in the garden of the house to celebrate her parents’ 20th wedding anniversary. The camera starts its journey by following the couple, as they cheerfully prepare for the party. Antoine passes his gift, a thin gold chain, around his wife’s neck, while Aurélia smiles serenely at him. Solange does her best to help everyone, happy to see her loved ones all together. In an intense exchange of glances from afar, the four protagonists look at each other, revealing the strength of their relationship. When Solange, who adores her family, gradually discovers disquieting cracks in her parents’ relationship, she refuses to give in to the evidence and resolutely clings to the idea of her family’s unity. Young Jade Springer admirably renders the complexity of Solange’s fragile but resolute character. Ropert chronicles her bewilderment with intelligence and understanding, passing from the description of a normal everyday life, to that of total breakdown. Lost in despair, the girl begins to wander the streets alone, unable to accept that even love can end someday. One evening, overwhelmed by a profound melancholy, Solange lets herself fall into the river; her blue scarf emerges for a moment on the gloomy surface of the water. Time stands still. The film’s magic lies precisely in these fleeting details; in its ability to express, with a simple brushstroke, an entire world falling apart. After an ellipsis of a few months we discover a different Solange: mature, responsible, ready to forgive and start a new life. The biting intensity of the film’s final sequence – the last family meal in the garden of the house that has already been sold – moves us to tears. 

No One’s With the Calves ©Weydemann Bros. – Max Preiss

Another female destiny story filmed by a female filmmaker, offers a gateway to the section of the Concorsi Cineasti del presente (Filmmakers of the Present), dedicated to the discovery of young talents and fresh, innovative cinematic approaches. In her second feature film, Niemand ist bei den Kalbern (No One’s With the Calves), a story set in the rural world of Western Pomerania, Sabrina Sarabi draws one of the most vivid and complex female portraits of this year’s Locarno selection. Based on the homonymous novel by Alina Herbing published in 2017, the film develops around the figure of Christin, a young woman who lives and works with her partner Jan in his family’s farm. The protagonist of each frame, with the strength of her introverted and surly gaze and the bursting beauty of her young body, Christin finds herself in a place she does not want to be, living with a man she does not love in an environment she detests, overwhelmed by the incomprehension, boredom and indifference of those around her. Saskia Rosehdal, who portrays this multifaceted character with absolute dedication, was awarded the Pardo for Best Actress. The blinding light of the sun in the middle of the countryside, captured with a clear sheen on film, creates from the very first shot an indefinable tension. As if in a sort of trance, estranged even from herself, the girl bends to the indolence of summer, dragging herself from one day to the next without enthusiasm, without purpose, without real joy. On the farm, all she does is go in and out, sleep and hurriedly grab a bite to eat while occasionally helping out with the cattle. Although Christin is constantly on the move, her life seems to unfold in slow motion. 

Sarabi’s sensitive approach has a meticulous documentary feel. With an almost phenomenological precision Niemand ist bei den Kälbern shows an existential malaise that is a social one as well since a large part of the former East German territories still suffer under a fragile economy. A symbol par excellence of the capitalist exploitation of the countryside, the wind turbines, rising menacingly above Jan’s (Rick Okon) land, regularly attract technicians from the city to maintain them. In one of these men, engineer Klaus (Godehard Giese), the girl sees an opportunity to make a night-time trip to Hamburg, however her great adventure ends up being a simple back-and-forth. A village party where she meets Caro, her best friend, seems to offer her a better pastime, but the evening ends badly anyway as Christin has to take care of her drunk father by carrying him back to his flat. In this rough environment of hard work, little leisure and loneliness, verbal exchanges are reduced to a minimum. Christin is not talkative either, yet through her skimpy, disco-like clothes and her often bold and provocative gaze, the girl puts up a passive resistance. We will never see her scream, get angry or lose her poise. Clumsily looking for a way out, she clings to Klaus, but when, in an out-of-the-way barn, the man, after almost choking her during intercourse, delights in burning her with his cigarette, Christin’s psyche begins to waver. The girl’s desperate attempts to talk to her best friend on the phone constantly fall on deaf ears. Dying and lost animals start to cross her path. Reality gradually turns into a nightmarish fantasy for her. Then, one night, the barn burns down. Sarabi’s command of the narrative shows in her ability to subtly trace the almost imperceptible process of her heroine’s breakdown with a strong flair for psychological introspection. Miraculously, this poignant coming of age story ends with a ray of hope as we see Christin finally driving away towards a new destination and a new life. 

From the Planet of the Humans

One of Locarno’s hidden gems was definitely to be found in the challenging Fuori concorso (Out of Competition) section. Giovanni Cioni’s Dal pianeta degli umani (From the Planet of the Humans) is a mesmerising film-essay in which historical data and biology, real facts and the power of the imagination all converge in a single, grandiose reflection on human destiny and the meaning of our existence.  Often called the master of the invisible, Cioni chooses a sumptuous, decaying mansion, facing the sea on the heights of Ventimiglia right on the border between Italy and France, as the starting point for a hypnotic yet highly lucid journey through time. The villa, which belonged in the 1920s to the then world-famous Dr Voronoff, an eccentric surgeon who promised his contemporaries a rejuvenating cure by transplanting monkey testicles into the male genital apparatus, thus becomes the beating heart of the story. Cioni imagines Dal pianeta degli umani as a dystopian fairy tale told from a fictional planet – our own – yet everything is very real in his film. The director’s voiceover, commenting on the flow of images with a light musical intonation, weaves a constant dialogue with this singular place, a famous dwelling but also a point of passage to the Passo della Morte, a steep and dangerous path taken even today by people fleeing in the hope of reaching France. Cioni, who has in the past personally tried to help illegal immigrants cross this border, films this pathway with vibrant sensitivity. His slightly blurred and fluid 16 mm images focus on the remains left by the migrants: abandoned clothes, a book, scattered objects, as if they were mute witnesses to an endless tragedy. Alternatingly, the camera takes off towards the horizon. The blue of the sea, filmed in slow motion, then invades the screen to open up space for other visions from the past. Historical images, archive material, clips from famous films of the 1920s such as King Kong, footage of experiments, animals and home movies all contribute to the film’s impressive epochal fresco.

With a poetic gaze and intellectual rigour, Cioni fashions his very dense narrative material, giving glimpses of Voronoff’s epic life as an amazing universe where the animal kingdom constantly mixes and interacts with the human world, offering ample food for thought on nature, history and the eternal cycle of life and death. The frogs that populated the cisterns of Voronoff’s famous villa in his day are resurrected on the film’s soundtrack, commenting on the foolishness of human acts with their croaking, like the chorus of a Greek tragedy. In an increasingly hallucinatory atmosphere, even the monkeys, which the doctor had brought from Africa and bred in large cages in the garden for his operations, emerge from the archive images with prodigious vitality. Cioni wonders whether the treatment meted out to the indigenous peoples in colonial times was so different from the treatment meted out to the apes, as faded images of a tribe huddled behind a cage-like enclosure appear on the screen. Following the narrative of the film, we gradually discover, scattered between one digression and another, the whole biography of the Russian Jewish Serge Voronoff (1866-1951): he was a controversial scientist and the bearer of an anthropocentric, chauvinist and colonialist vision. We therefore realise how, despite his immense popularity and Mussolini’s admiration, not even he will be saved from the racial laws of the fascist regime and will have to flee, losing everything…The irony of fate – or perhaps a kind of cosmic justice – will not have been spared, Cioni concludes, the man who wrote a treatise entitled Vivre, promising eternal youth. But if Voronoff is all but forgotten and his faded image has been swept away by the power of time, his villa still stands there, the vestige of a history that constantly repeats itself, a history made up of wars and oppression, of winners and of losers who will always have to flee in order to survive.

Locarno Film Festival
4-14 August 2021
Festival website: https://www.locarnofestival.ch/LFF/home 

About The Author

Maria Giovanna Vagenas is a curator and film critic based in Paris.

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