Locarno is, and can feel, half a world away from Hollywood, but much of the press talk leading up to this year’s 76th Locarno Film Festival concerned the concurrent SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild strikes in the US. Despite the distance, the Locarno film festival is the beginning of the autumn festival season, with many of its premieres then screening on the broader marquees of the Toronto and New York film festivals. Although Switzerland’s highest profile cultural event has traditionally prided itself on discovering emergent auteurs, European festivals have nonetheless relied, at least in part, on Hollywood products and imported glamour. And, indeed, the headlines in the run-up to this year’s edition of Locarno were full of performers like Riz Ahmed and Molly Gordon sending their faraway regrets or with, for further example, the Leopard Club honouree Stellan Skarsgård coming to Locarno but officially not accepting his award. Cate Blanchett cancelled her appearance for the closing-night film, Shayda, on which she is an executive producer. Moreover, Locarno might have had reason to feel particularly precarious in 2023 because, aside from the strikes and the technological changes driving them, the festival is undergoing another major transition this year: its long-time president, Marco Solari, is stepping down after twenty-three years – and after overseeing seven [!] different artistic directors. His successor, art collector and patron Maja Hoffmann, was named just before the festival started and will take the helm this coming year, working with the current artistic director, Giona Nazzaro, for next August’s 77th edition. 

If these various extra-filmic factors were undeniably in the Swiss air this year, they nonetheless help to underscore the festival’s most important role even among its European festival brethren, namely, finding and fostering young filmmaker-writers outside the Hollywood (or US-streaming) machines. While former Amazon Studios’ executive and indie legend Ted Hope came to Locarno and offered a widely reported excoriation of the streamers’ approach to cinema,1 the festival managed to deliver one of its best competitions in years, a stark reminder of what cinema, even in modestly budgeted and minimally marketed films, can be. Intriguingly, despite their quality – or, in fact, affirming it – the competition films seemed well aware of the crises and challenges of their historical moment. In a year that has seen the pandemic further subside and its attendance numbers return to just about where they were before the global health crisis, the Locarno competition nonetheless registered a sense of conventional culture on the edge, with considerable disquiet about culture’s, and the world’s, future. But the films engaged head-on with this edge-of-the-precipice structure of feeling, with consistent creativity and diverse originality lingering throughout this line-up of highly accomplished, and fascinatingly divergent, works.

Critical Zone

The writer-director of this year’s Golden Leopard winner, Critical Zone, was unable to attend the festival in person: writer/director Ali Ahmadzadeh was apparently refused an exit visa after a run-in with the security services in his homeland Iran – an absence that underscores the precarious state of filmmaking there, which his accomplished film demonstrates in breath-taking fashion. Much of Critical Zone was shot surreptitiously, with hidden cameras and out-of-the-way locations in and around Tehran, not least because its topic of a gentle yet charismatic drug dealer, Amir (Amir Pousti), would be unlikely to receive the approval of officials there. Amir, while acting criminally, nevertheless serves as a sort of guru and healer for the ennui – even despair – of many he encounters in contemporary Tehran. Conceived and shot before last year’s brutal repression of protests triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody, Critical Zone’s sensitivity to this downbeat atmosphere seems all the more prescient. The film follows Amir on one long night of drug pick-up and deliveries, during which he encounters assorted regulars from completely different walks of life, although all seem to share some vague sense of anguished depression. The film opens with a long take of an ambulance in an incredibly bright and twisting tunnel under the massive capital city – but instead of disgorging health-care professionals, the ambulance unloads some kind of undefined contraband. The furtive gestures of those hidden in the back – in a menacing, serpentine space, all subterranean – immediately suggest an alternative geography and secret drama to the teeming Iranian capital. The tunnel would seem to serve as the intestines of the city – a sense aggravated by the film’s sound design, which continually discharges low, grumbling bodily noises. This will be an altogether different kind of mapping and plotting of the great capital, the film declares from the outset. 

The exuberance of the one-long-night genre is a familiar one in independent cinema, not least for budgetary reasons, ranging from Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) to Mathieu Kassovitz’s similarly political La haine (Hate, 1995) to Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1991), which is, like Critical Zone, car-bound with a colourful cast of characters in the passenger seats. But rare is the film where giving a ride to a woman who removes her hijab could lead to confiscation of equipment and apprehension of the crew (as producer Sina Ataeian Dena recounted in an interview about the film), underscoring the very real stakes of Critical Zone’s considerable accomplishment.2 The soft-tones voice over of Amir’s GPS is often the only dialogue of the film as the cityscape whizzes by between his deliveries: from a dazed and weeping addict to nursing-home residents to a flight-attendant to trans sex-workers, they are all delighted to see Amir. The GPS’s even, soft tones frequently announce police or danger ahead – an allegory for Amir’s own service to his clients, which transcends the usual recreational use of drugs and offers recompense on a spiritual level for the doldrums of Iran after repeated protests and their subsequent crackdowns. Amir’s flight-attendant client offers what seems a generally, and generationally, existential scream after they escape some unidentified assailants – another allegory for Iran’s present moment – while Amir nurses another, young drug addict back to some kind of reality. To Critical Zone’s credit, that filmic reality, conjured illegally but expertly, is a very different and unforgettable one.

Winning the festival’s second overall prize was Radu Jude’s Nu astepta prea mult de la sfârsitul lumii (Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World). Jude’s long title foreshadows the film’s nearly three-hour running time – a duration cleverly highlighting the many, many hours of hard work undertaken by its heroine, Angela or Ange (Ilinca Manolache), in the contemporary “gig economy.” Jude has premiered films at Locarno before and has gone on to win the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 2021 for Babardeală cu bucluc sau porno balamuc (Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, 2021). In Do Not Expect Jude trains his skewering, satirizing eye on both the gig economy and the media industry’s suspect role in it: Angela is both a ride-sharing driver and a production assistant at a Bucharest production company that has a contract from an Austrian transnational to produce workplace safety videos. Angela drives all over town to audition those who have sustained injuries at work, filming them with her iPhone in their modest apartments so her supervisor lounging back at HQ can pick the most camera-worthy victims with, apparently, the most photogenic injuries. One candidate, for instance, is dismissed as “Too much Tod Browning’s Freaks.” Per that cinephilic but ungenerous observation, this gruesome premise about cross-border capitalism and the complicity of the media industry is played throughout for Eastern European dark humour – Angela’s work here is, after all, close to Kafka’s worker-insurance day-job. And, rather similar to many in Kafka’s work, the Romanians here are supplicants to the faraway Habsburg capital, with, at one point, a visit from a marketing boss, named Doris Goethe, played by Nina Hoss, the global art-cinema star returning to a corporate mode a la Christian Petzold’s Yella (2007) after her recent orchestral turn in Todd Fields’s Tár (2022). 

When Angela asks Goethe if it’s true that the Austrian company is massacring Romanian forests for their furniture empire, Hoss’s Goethe replies, in perfect corporate doublespeak, that she’s just from marketing so doesn’t know and, if they are cutting forests, it’s really due to the corrupt Romanian politicians and the citizens who elect them. Jude’s take is not exactly subtle here: Doris’s boss is named Hans Frank (aka the historic, heinous top Nazi in Poland), while one of the Romania crew laments that Doris is “directing this from Heldenplatz,” where an Austrian crowd greeted Hitler in the Anschluss. Here, though, it is money rather than the military that is all conquering: if a workplace victim and his family are offered €1000 for a day of shooting at the site of his head injury, Hoss’s Goethe apparently blew double that in a night of drinking “with some [local] creeps.” Do Not Expect also cleverly critiques the current state of labour by intercutting a Romanian film from the early 1980s about a female taxi driver also named Angela, who frequently has to fend off fares, but otherwise seems surprisingly sanguine in what appears to be a much gentler economy. These intercut sequences from the heyday of communism foreground the contradictions of today’s putative political freedom in Eastern-European tension with gig-economy exploitation. Back in the film’s frenetic present of the work-place shoot, the Austrian corporate overlords whittle away at the pain and suffering of their distant employees, offering notes on the production that excise any company-compromising details. Jude’s jaunt through the Romanian media landscape runs too long and anarchically to have much commercial prospect, but is certainly amusing and insightful about a world manically on the go but without a discernible, desirable arrival. The Kafkaesque journey documents, in gleefully anti-realist style, what feels like an important moment of Romanian cultural history. Do Not Expect conveys a frantic culture on edge, unfolding how hollowed-out cultural production can become at such moments – although more through the alienation of its small-scale and underpaid producers than via the audience. 

Locarno’s directing (third place) prize went to Maryna Vroda for her Stepne, which offers a movingly melancholic, if not entirely nostalgic, portrait of a community on the verge of vanishing, with the fading of traditional culture and an unclear future again in the foreground. Vroda won the 2011 Cannes Short Film Palme d’Or for Cross, and here, in her first feature, she seems committed to memorializing a disappearing world and history as much as spinning a narrative yarn. Set in rural, north-eastern Ukraine near to where the Kyiv and Berlin educated Vroda spent many summers, Stepne follows the return of late-middle-aged engineer Anatoliy to his childhood home to care for his very old, ill mother. Throughout the quiet but powerful film, Vroda’s excellent eye for rich imagery yields moments of real epiphany. For example, at a couple of points, Anatoliy holds aloft a lone, long stick toward the expansive sky with something unidentifiable on the end – it turns out to be a mobile phone attempting connection to the wider world. The image well conveys the literal and metaphorical distance of the village from that of contemporary technology or the modern city. At his mother’s house and in the village around it – a community more of impromptu convenings than of buildings – viewers see that virtually everyone is elderly, likely around the age of Anatoliy’s mother. At one dinner, with many of the villagers, they recall a history of the brutal German occupation during World War II, grinding poverty and hunger as well as Ukraine’s complex relationship with Russia – partial and/or broken images of Lenin and Stalin hang in the background, like unwanted ghosts. The film was conceived and mostly shot before the current war, but also manages to show the lingering tensions between the countries even for its oldest inhabitants. One of the only other middle-age characters – a former flame of Anatoliy, Anya – cries when the assembled elderly start to sing, underscoring the film’s sense of a fragile culture that could easily come to an end. 

Another of this year’s prize winners, Animal from director/writer Sofia Exarchou, also poised its principals on a cultural precipice, of the kitschy commodification of culture. The film won one of the festival’s two gender-non-specific acting prizes, here for Dimitra Vlagopoulou’s portrayal of Kalia, an aging performer at a large tourist resort on an unnamed Greek island. The film opens with extreme close-ups of bodies on a summer-time beach, but, rather than bodies in sun-bathing repose, these are bodies that move, lurch, and dance in surprising ways – although the commercial context might be one of tourist relaxation, this hotel-hired troupe of which Kalia is a member proves effective and even moving in surprising ways. They sing, dance, and carouse with the guests who are from all over the world – it is a job they mostly seem to love, from their cosmopolitan introductions at the beginning (Vladimir from Russia, Eva from Poland, et al.) to the post-performance moonlighting in a nearby dance club and, finally, to after-hours drinks on the beach. For these performers, too, the role of culture in one’s life is at issue: some of the performances, either via dance or abruptly heartfelt karaoke, transcend the overwhelming kitschy atmosphere of the resort. On the other hand, their bodies for hire are overtly sexualized and exploited, engaging in a self-expression hollowed out by tourist masses’ reduced and repetitive notions of entertainment. In the intersection of hard bodies and soft culture – all in the context of crass commercialism – the film recalls Stephen Soderbergh’s original Magic Mike (2012), not least for its repeated, socially critical use of superficial song and dance. While for the younger members of the group this summer job seems a good way to earn a paycheck, be additionally compensated with housing and food, and enjoy themselves and each other, Kalia has been a performer for nine years, with ten years of working odd jobs before that, after she had left home at 16. Although she has an intermittent affair with the leader of the troupe, she also begins sleeping with multiple tourists, apparently in an effort to make herself actually, rather than merely superficially, feel something. Given the resort context, it is a sudden and surprising development in this arresting character study, in which little beyond the song and dance numbers and seduction seems to happen, but melancholy and even depression sneak up on the performers and audience alike.

Sweet Dreams

The last of the “Pardo” prizes in the competition went, also for acting, to Ena Sendijarevic’s Sweet Dreams, for the performance by Renée Soutendijk as Agathe, the matriarch of a Dutch colonial sugar plantation. Shortly after its festival premiere, the film was announced as the Netherland’s entry in the 2024 international feature Oscar race. Sweet Dreams opens with a breath-taking, extreme high angle shot of a stunningly dense rain forest, set to a hauntingly oneiric score suggesting that the eponymous dreams might not be so sweet. The shot is reminiscent of Herzog at his best, for instance in the opening of Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), signalling magnificent landscapes entwined with the absurd, soon absurdist, folly of trying to dominate them colonially. In Sweet Dreams, such folly saturates not 15th-century Peru, but the “Dutch East Indies” (today Indonesia) c. 1900, a much later moment when the colonizers themselves were having doubts about their murderous-mercantilist projects, though they certainly, as Sweet Dreams details, still loved the money. After this disconcerting opening, a small band led by an aging Dutchman, Jan (Hans Dagelet), lures and kills a tiger. To highlight the late colonial moment of both historical continuity and break, Jan lets his son, Karel (Rio Kaj Den Haas), kill the tiger. Jan soon gets his first-act comeuppance, however, and his colonial household is thrown into chaos when it turns out that he has left the house, the factory, and the plantation that power them to the young Karel, whose mother is one of the house’s indigenous servants, Siti (Hayati Azis). In doing so, Jan (“confused” as his reverend and notary calls him) has passed over his adult son, Cornelius (Florian Myjer), who appears quickly on the colonial scene from the faraway Dutch metropole with his pregnant wife Jo (Lisa Zweerman), to claim what they assumed was theirs. The film cleverly uses the moment of generational transition in the “East Indies” to open up questions of colonial culture, economics, and the racist violence underpinning both. The film is especially effective in cultivating a dream-like stylized tone, but one in which the Dutch are, at least at first, obliviously sleep walking through the changes around them. Particularly powerful in conveying these changes is Muhammad Khan as Reza, Siti’s indigenous suitor and general rabble-rouser who embodies the intelligence, wit, and understandable resentment of a rising, post-colonial world order – for me, one of the performances of the entire competition. In painful contrast, Cornelius’s putatively modern-man progressivism (about his wife, for instance) is quickly shown to be a pathetic, performative lip service, discarded for murder the moment he needs the money. As in European colonialism writ large, people purporting to do “God’s work” were willing to engage in the most shocking atrocities. The topic is heavy, but Sendijarevic’s light touch, perhaps because of the effectively stylized performances and eerily dream-like atmosphere, highlights the shocking nature of the historical proceedings. 

A special mention at this year’s festival went to Sylvain George’s Nuit obscure – Au revoir ici, n’importe où (Obscure Night – Goodbye Here, Anywhere), a three-hour documentary about a shifting group of tweens and teens living rough in the Spanish town of Melilla in northern Africa and plotting their escape to continental Europe. Surrounded by Morocco, Melilla is around five square miles and has approximately 90,000 inhabitants of the EU in Africa, a historical remnant of both the ancient world and the reciprocally colonial back-and-forth between Muslim and Catholic powers in southern Spain and northern Africa. George has also made work about Calais, the notorious port town whose camps have become a final destination for many refugees seeking to go to the UK. Melilla is perhaps a more scenic, but nonetheless equally strange interzone – a colonial leftover from the (late) 15th century Reconquista that has now been swept up into immigration and refugee politics of the twenty-first century.3 The film opens with low-angle shots of Melilla’s mammoth walls and tall towers – although looking near ancient now, they are not relic reminders of a bygone era, but a visualization of today’s “fortress Europe” that looms menacingly above and out of reach for many would-be migrants. The film’s group of boys and young men scale fences, dash across parking lots, hide in trees – all the while watching for, and witness to, the mammoth ships that transport people, cargo, and cars off to the European continent from this beachhead in northern Africa. As George pointed out, his film follows not “wild” or “animalistic” boys, as some have suggested, but people whose existences have been at least partially imprinted by the unique combination of place, history, and modern legal regimes that have written themselves directly on their often-scarred bodies. That contiguity of bodies – many of them childlike – and the barbed perils of this bizarre interzone, be they in razor-sharp fences or broken bottles wielded at the boys by police, convey the biopolitics of these border spaces. In this way, the film falls in the realm of neorealism’s documenting of social underpinnings via the precarious lives of young people on the fringes of familiar society. In one of Obscure Night’s many memorable images, the boys hide precious clothes and food in subtle sewers in the middle of Melilla’s scenic streets, highlighting the marginalization but simultaneous omnipresence of their subsistence existences. Out of respect, George recounted, he does not offer exposition on how the boys and young men ended up here – living in an ontological condition of permanent transit – but rather highlights their plight and courage in the face of it. 

In Quentin Dupieux’s Yannick, an amusingly Bartleby-like refusal from an audience member at a play turns into something more sinister, an arc highlighting the delicate balance of culture, its willing constituents, and its derisive discontents. In the film’s opening stretch, viewers watch three actors perform an amusing comedy “The Cuckold,”, with a sardonically cheeky husband, Paul (Pio Marmaï), learning, albeit incredulously, that his wife Sophie (Blanche Gardin) prefers another, William (Sébastien Chassagne), who is currently in the toilet battling a superbug from his travels abroad. When Sophie suggests she and her platonic paramour depart, the latter counter-intuitively accepts Paul’s invitation to sit down and get to know to each other. It is at about this point in the mediocre play that the titular anti-hero Yannick (Raphaël Quenard) stands up in the audience, preferring not to remain silent at what he labels a dramatic “disaster.” A night guard at a provincial parking lot, Yannick has not only paid good money, but also had to request one of his few evenings off to commute 45 minutes on train and 15 on foot to attend the performance. As he informs the actors and audience both, he becomes the centre of attention, eventually pulling a gun on those assembled to allow him to pen a replacement play. With his complaints about the commute highlighting the housing crisis in cities, his motivations remain ambiguous, but his love of art surprisingly clarion. Yannick walks a tightwire of cheerful aggression and jocular menace, one pulled off impressively by Quenard in the highly contradictory role – the on-stage actors frown at how much he is able to turn his audience-hostages against them, the purported stars of the show. The film opens with an image of a neoclassical bust in the theatre’s foyer, invoking the aura of art that Dupieux deliberately shatters to surprisingly funny and illuminating effect.

Essential Truths of the Lake

Along these mean lakeshores – rather than down the noirish streets – walks our haunted detective, Lieutenant Hermes Papauran (John Lloyd Cruz), in Lav Diaz’s much anticipated Essential Truths of the Lake. Diaz has won both the Golden Leopard at Locarno and the Golden Lion at Venice for his very long films engaging various aspects of the Philippines’ history as well as recent challenges. Essential Truths of the Lake unfolds in a contemporary moment, but is obsessed, also film-noir like, with the recent past and the burdens it creates for its antihero on the tattered edges of the law. The titular lake in question is Taal Lake, around 70km from the Philippines’ sprawling capital Manila, where Lieutenant Papauran is based. The film’s lake is the playground of drug lords and also where the “Philippine Eagle,” Esmeralda Stuart (Shaina Magdayao), was murdered in 2005, but, now in the film’s present of 2019 and 2020, Papauran remains on the job, reputed to be the “best investigator” in the Philippines. He even retires near the lake and the presumed scene of the long-ago crime. One of the essential truths of Lav Diaz’s work is his willingness to work at length, almost always over three hours, sometimes at four and five hours. Here, however, he deploys a familiar “B” genre framework – an obsessive detective, a cold case murder of a model and sometimes escort, and a seamy world of sex and violence – in service to his auteurist approach of extremely long take, somewhat stilted (rather than highly charged) dialogue, and long shots of landscape that foregrounds the world these characters inhabit. Like David Fincher’s classic variations on noir in Zodiac (2007), or even Fritz Lang’s M (1931), Essential Truths front loads the violence and sex that yield a stronger second half that becomes a melancholic portrait of a dispersive community in the wake of human made catastrophes. Here, too, there is a sense of world built on ruins now fading, with the new world yet to come still undefined. Essential Truths achieves, in its better second half, what the best noirs do: a kind of epistemological and eventually ontological crisis for their obsessed antiheroes, while the audience begins to understand how the context (the lake and all it represents) undercuts any certainty about the wider world.

Baan is the debut feature from cinematographer and writer-director Leonor Teles, who conjures a usual visual richness and evocative atmosphere. Tracking the trepidatious transition to working life, the film follows the young architect/designer L (or El, Carolina Miragaia) through her recent breakup with a boyfriend and into a possible new relationship with K (or Kay, Meghna Lall), a Thai-Canadian from Toronto who has relocated to Lisbon after she has test driven a good number of potential homelands. The question of the film’s setting at any given moment proves elusive, one of its consistent intrigues as the film prioritizes affective resonances over plot points: Teles plays with the ambiguities of travel and feeling settled, or not, amid literal and emotional drift around the globe. To convey this sense of L’s and K’s emotional ambivalences, the film obfuscates in which city they are at any given moment: is it Lisbon, the Portuguese provinces, or Bangkok, which adopted K has long wanted to visit in search of her ethnic roots? Evocatively rendered via sleepily dreamy, suddenly exploding cityscapes, Baan hews especially close physically and emotionally to L’s romantic and professional trials and travails. The arresting interplay of resonant urban space and subjective structure of feeling recalls masters like Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, whom Teles has cited as her inspirations for Baan’s visual schemes. The film, for instance, offers a virtual thesaurus of Wong’s memorable urban images, from Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai, 1994) and other works, including street-set slow motion, jerky jump cuts in and out of buildings as well as soulful taxi rides with city lights dancing on the cab window. Perhaps even more relevant for L’s struggles are Wong’s moving portraits of loneliness amid the urban multitude, be it in suddenly still, deep-space compositions in an empty noodle shop or an abrupt cut to the actor leaning against a wall far to the left of frame. Wong’s portrait of Hong Kong as a teeming global city replete with historical ghosts is clear here, including mixing immigrants of all sorts with characters’ personal pasts and the frequent intersections therein. Baan did dress its ambitious and memorable traversals of far-flung space in a somewhat stuttering sort of romance – but the linkages here, emotional and spatial, are temptingly tenuous, though that seems to be the point. 

Dani Rosenberg’s The Vanishing Soldier takes up one of the world’s longest and most controversial conflicts, that between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, and manages to milk it for surprisingly arresting tragi-comedy that underscores that wars are an extra hell for people with simple plans. Nineteen-year-old Shlomi (Ido Tako) deserts his Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) unit without much notion of the consequences, engaging in what becomes a fast-paced and amusing picaresque, mostly in and around the scenic streets in Tel Aviv and environs. Shlomi’s main motivation is a simple and familiar desire, even if its consequence prove complex, then tumultuous, then deadly: he wants to visit his girlfriend Shiri (Mika Reiss) before she leaves for college in Canada, not least in order to convince her to stay and open up a restaurant with him or, more likely, a pancake booth. Such low level plans from Shlomi versus Shiri’s emigratory educational ambitions highlight the modest scale of the former’s strategic insight – he focuses much more on surviving the next ten minutes rather than on a considered thinking through of long-term objectives. One comedic sequence has him at the beach, in uniform, meeting a wealthy-looking French-speaking couple who praise him as the spirit of the nation, as they lounge carefree in the luxurious surroundings. Shlomi promptly steals the from the couple – the man’s civilian clothes – leaving him to pop up throughout the rest of the film in Shlomi’s original uniform, highlighting non-Israelis’ facile and faraway support of the conflicts in Israel. But, telling for the film, Rosenberg explores all of this with a light touch, often playing it for slapstick. In response to Shlomi’s impulsive proposal for marriage – delivered by a circuitously passed note at a restaurant – Shiri repeatedly raises the possibility of emigrating out of the complex situation. Delicately dancing around the details of politics in the region, the film deliberately foregrounds the sheer human cost of war. As Shlomi’s desertion wears on, the authorities swing into action to locate him before he can be smuggled out and presumably held for more ransom (and embarrassment). With both the president and IDF Chief of Staff soon involved – which Shlomi learns to his shock and increasing horror – special forces are activated, and a brutal offensive initiated to find a soldier presumed kidnapped. Here, too, modern media culture like cable TV news exacerbates crises to a shocking breaking point. How the picaresque will end as the stakes of human loss climb is the question, with the solution first coming in a dream and then on the street in an intriguingly ambiguous climax.

Bob Byington’s Lousy Carter opens with the eponymous Lousy (David Krumholtz) in a doctor’s waiting room, where he learns that he has a terminal condition that will kill him in six months. On the way out of the office after this shocking news, a cheerful young staff member informs him that he owes some $700, highlighting a habitual but ill-timed hassling Lousy sustains throughout the film. For instance, when his mother abruptly dies and he balks at some of the pricier options – shoot her ashes into space for $11,000? ‘No, thank you’ – the funeral specialist offers him a special rate for a “group cremation.” Bad luck Lousy elects to hold his mother’s service at a bowling alley, but his eulogy devolves into a disagreement with his sister about their mother’s suspect character, all set to the dulcet roar of balls’ trundling down the alley. Lousy is a professor at a university where he is, to the derision of his colleagues, teaching a graduate seminar on just one book, The Great Gatsby. His terminal diagnosis apparently does not diminish his desire to teach, although it may inspire the late-life revival of a long-deferred animation project – with both the teaching and animating feeling, perhaps like Lousy himself, like a cultural vestige. That animation project is based on Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, which parallels Lousy’s similarly Nabokovian lurch at a young student in his class. With the seminar and the animation, as they intersect with both his disease and the student’s disdain, one finds once again a sense of cultural forms in transition. The interactions between the contemptuously distracted student Gail (Luxy Banner) and nebbish Lousy are hilarious highpoints of the film, with full credit going to the performers, Banner and Krumholtz, respectively. Krumholtz’s star has been on the rise recently, not least as a slightly sleazy but surprisingly sympathetic porn director in David Simon and George Pelecanos’s underrated TV series The Deuce (2017-2019) and, more recently, as Oppenheimer’s close colleague-friends, Professor Dr. Isidor Rabi, in Christopher Nolan’s summertime blockbuster Oppenheimer. Also very funny in Lousy’s job-like story are Martin Starr as a witheringly disdainful colleague at the university with whose wife, Olivia (Jocelyn DeBoer), Lousy is having a surprise affair, and the indomitable Stephen Root as Lousy’s somewhat bored, indulgently introspective, Germanophone therapist. 

The Permanent Picture

Laura Ferrés’s La imatge permanent (The Permanent Picture) builds, per its title, on the intriguing interplay between the transitory and the abiding in images and in the heart. Well-acted and directed, and ultimately memorable in its surprising traversals, the film opens with the old-fashioned staging of a formal family portrait in which a mother and daughter are present, but the father has been “disappeared” (in the Spanish civil war or subsequent dictatorship), so an earlier portrait of him is superimposed above them. His is a hovering presence behind them, evoking at once a religious icon, a mug shot, and a spectral haunting. That elusiveness of the image, both ephemeral and permanent, is telling for a film that tracks, out of the southern Spanish past and into the northern present, a relationship tricky to define. That relationship proves just as challenging to define as the relationship between an oppressive history and freer, if somehow unsatisfying contemporary world. The first part of the film unfolds decades before in a small, smothering town in southern Spain where Antonia (Rosario Ortega) – only twelve or thirteen – wanted to fool around but has become a single mother, to the consternation of the strict Catholics around her. When her baby Carmen arrives, she draws a mini moustache on her, obviously struggling to soothe the baby and soon fleeing from her and the oppressive town. Then, with an abrupt, angled, almost abstract cut to a modern railroad that Ozu-like catapults viewers into an unexpected modernity, Ferrés jumps to the present moment in the urban Catalan north, where a casting agent at an advertising agency, (coincidentally?) named Carmen (María Luengo), is searching for people for political commercials to recount their migration to the city – presumably, like her and her infirmed mother, from the countryside. In her search for subjects, Carmen comes across a garish older woman hawking home-made perfumes on the street, an offbeat woman – named (coincidentally?) Antonia – who works her way into Carmen’s consciousness. The ambiguous past and our looming, technologized future seem a central concern here, in the tension between the opening family portrait and the AI morphing among artificial faces Carmen sees at work. Here, too, the characters and the culture seemed perched before an uncertain fate that encourages them all the more to find anyone to hold onto.

In Simone Bozzelli’s Patagonia, in a way parallel to The Permanent Picture, a potentially erotic relationship anchoring the film remains highly ambiguous, the motivations of its participants highly opaque. Young Yuri (Andrew Fuorto) leads a low-key provincial existence in the Abruzzo region of Italy, sheltered by a coterie of aunts among whom he is lovingly passed. In the professional and personal limbo of his late teens (he’s to turn 20 soon), he works at one of his aunt’s butcher shops – ineffectively – as a cashier, and is stuck between an older generation who dotes on him and the many children who seem the village’s main preoccupation. When he observes a traveling child entertainer, Agostino (Augusto Mario Russi), performing for these local children, he joins the performance as audience member but is delighted when “Ago” begins to incorporate him into his performance. Soon, the slightly older Ago invites Yuri to join him in his traveling act and in his footloose existence: Ago lives in a dilapidated camper, but one full of toys, puppets, and music that were woefully lacking from Yuri’s small-town life. Here, too, the confusions of our particular moment manifest in a longing for experiences of a seemingly lost culture. Like the clown’s bolt-of-lightning performance in the sleepy small town, the camper offers a heterotopic space of culture for Yuri – the film’s title comes from a song they listen to in the camper, conjuring a shared dream to visit a place about which, given the precarity of their existences, they have little hope of seeing. Yuri’s long, even lingering looks and lurches at jokes with Ago betray some kind of desire for him, a desire that remains for much of the film intriguingly undefined. This elusive, perhaps erotic desire is displaced on to the endless loop of the camper’s aimless journeys, with their working when they feel like it but primarily joining impromptu parties populated by other itinerants. Provocatively shot on dusty locations around the Abruzzo region, with piercing performances by both its principals, Bozzelli’s feature-length debut is impressive. Limning a thin line of compassion and cruelty, the film’s core relationship recalls those in Fassbinder and more recently in Xavier Dolan films, in which queer desire intersects, simultaneously, searingly-imaged passion but also brutal exploitation.

Basil da Cunha has set his work before in the rough Reboleira section of Lisbon, but here he adds an unexpected dimension to his depiction, near documenting, the downtrodden neighbourhood: Manga d’Terra becomes a self-conscious musical, with a number of songs performed by its talented lead, Eliana Rosa. Since at least West Side Story (Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise, 1961), music has helped ease the artistic journey to urban neighbourhoods unknown and seemingly off limits to most audiences – David Simon, of TV series The Wire (2002-2008) fame, used music in his multi-season follow-up to his celebrated if brutal study of Baltimore with a kind of musical series Treme (David Simon, Eric Ellis Overmyer, 2010-2013), to highlight the upside of urban neighbourhoods that most middle-class audiences dismiss as no-go zones. Da Cunha’s work falls in the tradition of these classic studies of often overlooked urban neighbourhoods of global cities: here, too, through immigration, consumerism, and cosmopolitan culture, the seemingly emphatically local still manages to be undeniably global. As in his The End of the World (2019), also set in Reboleira and also in competition at Locarno (in 2019), da Cunha uses an outsider to this world to slowly reveal the spaces, the times, and the mores: in the film’s opening and throughout the first act, Rosa watches the neighbourhood invaded by the police searching for alleged gang members. Her job assisting at a local restaurant brings her into contact, via picaresque-like encounters, with different corners of Reboleira, including an improvised, open-air fish market and a canny friend who begrudgingly lends Rosa her kitchenware – it is on these travels that she meets one of the neighbourhood’s most wanted, a rapper, who also ends up introducing her to the local music scene. The film is memorable for the atmosphere da Cunha conjures and impressive performances by professional and non-professionals alike, mixed throughout as in the best neorealist traditions. The musical numbers signal a winning development in his work.

Annarita Zambrano’s Rossosperanza opens with a high-angle close-up of a red, vinyl LP with 1990 imprinted on it: as the old-fashioned disc spins, it unfurls The Cure’s melancholic crooning, recalling that era and its historical edge-of-the-precipice structure of feeling (the fall of the Berlin Wall, the looming “clean hands” scandal in Italy, and the explosion of internet-surveillance capitalism). Despite this carefully retro late- ‘80s/early ‘90s opening, the black comedy does not operate so much in the realm of nostalgia – instead, it seems committed to excavating the era in more provocatively exuberant fashion, with explicit sex, violence and generational aggression than that on offer in the 1980s teen dramadies it evokes. The ensemble structure of four, privileged but very different teens – along with their casually rebellious sensibilities – echoes familiar works, especially the 1980s Johns Hughes films, but the stakes are higher here, since the film is prepared to indict not only smug middle-class culture, but the institutions – including state institutions – with which such culture is contiguous. In such films, without any serious flagging of class or ethnicity, middle and upper-middle-class adolescents act out against their parents and the institutions there to support. Or, one should say, institutions purporting to support the older generation, because the latter often prove so incompetent and risible as to undercut the social norms they are geared to bolster. The film’s dramatic tension and ironic humour are largely derived from the interplay between those institutions and the young people disdaining them deliciously. The film flashes back from the rehab centre that gathers them together, flashbacks that detail their transgressions. The spinner of the opening record, Zena (Margherita Morellini), has poisoned a church monsignor who may or may not have sexually assaulted her and/or others; another young woman Marzia (Ludovica Rubino) sleeps around with wealthy adults and gleefully recounts her acquired sexual wisdom to anyone who will listen; the openly and happily gay Alfonso (Leonardo Giuliani) burns down his parents’ palatial abode after they hassle him about the outrageous outfits he has been hiding in his parental home. The film proves pleasingly provocative, with a colourful cast whose past recalls a smug era and whose future remains in the balance.

Human Surge 3

Rich evidence to Locarno’s long-standing commitment to experimental and/or avant-garde films, The Human Surge 3 is ambitious in scope and scale, tracking its principals around the globe in at least three, extremely disparate locations: Sri Lanka, Peru, and Taiwan. Director Eduardo Williams won the “Filmmakers of the Present” (aka new filmmakers) prize at Locarno in 2016 with Human Surge, a similarly ambitious and genre bending work that explored human connection in our digital age. In The Human Surge 3 (it isn’t clear where number two is), Williams uses an ambitious camera setup and visual scheme incorporating it. He shot with a 360º camera, used mostly for video games, and then explored this footage with an immersive headset – the film as screened was a film of this immersive media experience of the 360º shot footage. Repackaging video-game and immersive experiences for The Human Surge 3’s visual schemes is intellectually ambitious – and certainly a lot of technical innovation arises from such gaming corners – without being that inviting (and that’s bracketing the periodic glitching). With its unusual camera work and geographic traversals, the film favours long, handheld takes that snake through these locations of landscapes, cities, even waterways, while openly distancing itself from the familiar guardrails of storytelling. The way in which it hands off its dialogue to different characters in a seemingly unmotivated, certainly meandering manner recalls the early Richard Linklater classic Slacker (1990), which similarly used loosely linked dialogue and characters chaotically on the move to convey a space – although here the space is on the sprawling scale of the globe. Also echoing Linklater is Williams’s interest in sleep and the dreams that populate them (as in Waking Life, 2001) and the fruitfully porous boundaries of consciousness, a fragility of which the film plays upon throughout. Quite like a dream is Williams’s meandering traversal of space. Dispensing with conventional narratives – especially in a long film edited from three different spaces – requires a strong concept, which seems somewhat lacking here beyond the intriguing visual experimentation. 

In his canonical book on genre, Rick Altman, A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre (1984), demonstrates that Hollywood historically innovates by mixing and matching genres, but, of course, that is not only a US phenomenon, and Estonian director Rainer Sarnet’s The Invisible Fight offers a highly original generic concoction at the (literal) crossroads of a knock-down-drag-out kung-fu movie and a folkloric tale of orthodox monks à la Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966). Toss in a retro-nostalgia for early 1970s long hair, platform shoes, and Black-Sabbath early metal – plus a Bruce Lee poster on the wall – and you have a pretty amusing, if overly long genre mash-up. At the USSR-China border in 1973, a trio of kung-fu masters blast their metal out of an anachronistic portable cassette desk while attacking a Soviet base and afflicting one of their guards with their enthusiasm for martial arts and metal. Soon, Ursel Tilk’s Rafael (who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Christopher Walken, if he were an orthodox monk) perplexes his mother by donning bell bottoms, leather, and long hair, a generational rebellion that then takes another unexpected turn when Rafael encounters some Orthodox monks, who march/dance in Fellini-esque movements. Ever full of bubbling inspiration and unexpected rapture, Rafael asks if he could join their order, to which their leader (whom he had recently kung-fu kicked) answers “Of course, it’s possible, that is the meaning of life,” – indeed, constant change and growth, even becoming an entirely different person, seems the main theme here, particularly after Rafael makes a prized icon at the cloister cry. He is quick, ill-advisedly, to wipe away the miraculous tears of the Madonna, while raven-haired Rita (Ester Kuntu), a depressed young woman out of his recent kung-fu past, complicates his monastic character arc. Here, too, the tensions between conventional culture and a disruptive future are at stake. Even if The Invisible Fight ultimately offers a somewhat pat answer, those tensions suffuse the atmosphere offered most provocatively – in nuce, what this year’s excellent competition offered in toto.

Locarno Film Festival
2 – 12 August 2023
Festival website: https://www.locarnofestival.ch/festival.html


  1. Nick Vivarelli, “Former Amazon Studios Executive Ted Hope Lambasts Studios and Streamers: ‘Two Film Unions Striking Proves the System is Built to be Unfair,” Variety, 3 August 2023.
  2. Sina Ataeian Dena, “Critical Zone”: Censorship and Freedom of Artistic Expression in Iran,” Locarno Film Festival News, 10 August 2023
  3. The “Reconquista” refers to Christian states “re” conquering territories from Muslims forces, commonly known as the “Moors,” in the Iberian Peninsula and some points further south like Melilla. Melilla was claimed late in the process, which began, by some accounts, as early as the 8th century.

About The Author

Jaimey Fisher is professor of German and of Cinema & Digital Media at the University of California, Davis. Fisher has written four books: German Ways of War (about German war films), Treme, Christian Petzold, and Disciplining Germany: Youth, Reeducation, and Reconstruction after the Second World War. He has also edited and co-edited several books and special issues.

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