Leave it to the Europeans to sprinkle prestige onto an already beloved movie. “Short Term 12” was an indie darling on the festival circuit before it went to Europe, winning the Grand Jury Prize at the SXSW Film Festival and gaining acclaim at other events around the country ahead of its release later this month. But when it came to the Locarno Film Festival last week for its international premiere, “Short Term 12” became a blockbuster. After the tender story of a foster home for at-risk youth screened for an audience of people from around the world, director Destin Daniel Cretton and star Brie Larson faced a standing ovation that lasted for several minutes.
“Short Term 12” wasn’t the only popular ingredient at the festival with mainstream appeal. Early on, 92-year-old Christopher Lee received an award on the massive outdoor Piazza Grande and mentioned “Star Wars.” Other honors on different nights went to Jacqueline Bisset and Faye Dunaway. Electronic musician Peaches was spotted at countless parties talking about the movies she had watched as part of her role in one of the juries. Special effects guru Douglas Trumbull delivered several lectures about his work, recalling how collaborating with Stanley Kubrick on “2001: A Space Odyssey” opened his eyes to the expansive possibilities of cinema, and why Trumbull now wants to follow in Kubrick’s footsteps by inventing a new kind of “hyper-cinema” designed to be shown on IMAX screens at 120 frames per second.
Viewed on their own, these ingredients feed the impression of Locarno as a haven for Hollywood icons and industry heavyweights, but that’s not the whole story. The festival’s is most crucially defined by a programming strategy that contrasts a wide variety of sensibilities. Carrying on the tradition of previous festival director Olivier Pére, newcomer Carlo Chatrian crafted a lineup with a range unlike any others found at festivals of this size, where thousands of press and industry attend form around the world.
The main international competition contained a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, traditional narratives and experimental film.
In the same section featuring “Manakamana,” a movie exclusively focused on characters riding back and forth in a cable car over the course of two hours, the programmers included “Pays Barbare,” an Italian compilation of archival footage from the Italo-Ethiopian war, in addition to Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s blithe dramedy “Our Sunhi.” Then there’s Golden Leopard winner “The Story of My Death,” Catalan director Albert Serra’s provocative treatment of the Casanova story (which included a cameo by Dracula) wasn’t the only anti-biopic in the section; it also contained “Mary Queen of Scots,” an elegant period drama from Swiss director Thomas Imbach.
Even as its reception was mixed, “Mary Queen of Scots” provided a telling example of what, if anything, defines a typical Locarno movie. Carried by Camille Rutherford’s tender and individualistic performance, the movie finds Mary in an uneasy cold war with the Queen of England. Though some audiences found Imbach’s treatment of the material to suffer from an unearned brooding quality, “Mary Queen of Scots” features an appealing reworking of familiar contents: While in many ways a traditional period drama, its time-shifting structure and dreamlike narration manages to critique the very strictures of the genre.
At Locarno, many of the movies exist to instigate a dialogue about the nature of the art form. “The Story of My Death” initially faced derision from the press before a steady measure of support gradually coalesced in its favor. “Manakamana” followed in the footsteps of “Leviathan” last year by showing that audacious formalism can actually stand out in the crowd rather than become marginalized simply because it has no clear precedent. The slow-burn Romanian drama “When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism” instigated wildly divisive conversations about the value of its patient long-takes, while the nearly three hour Portuguese diary film “What Now? Remind Me” was a near-universal hit.
Unlike the Cannes Film Festival, the world’s proudest high profile festival – or Toronto, which is among the biggest – Locarno has manageable scale that benefits from the clash of new and different movies in its lineup. It doesn’t need to aim to be the best festival in the world so long as it retains the uniqueness of the program. In the four years I’ve attended, it continually maintains a sense that the movies don’t just belong in the program, but that they belong together.