Every August, while much of the movie world gears up for the fall season and the first hints of Oscar season materialize, the Locarno Film Festival shows up in Switzerland to offer a different perspective on current cinema. The 10-day event has no shortage of bigger titles, such as "Trainwreck," which made its European premiere at the festival. In general, though, Locarno is a place for discovery — though not every movie at the festival has an easy time finding its way to North America. But even if distributors from that part of the world don’t make their way to the festival, they should still make the effort to catch up on its highlights. As usual, this year’s lineup offered a number of satisfying options from around the world. Here’s a look at a few that stood out.
For additional reporting on this year’s festival, Anne Thompson provides a dispatch on her experience this year. Stay tuned to Criticwire for essays on Locarno highlights by the members of this year’s Critics Academy.
"The Academy of the Muses"
Though he hasn’t had a film released in the United States since 2007’s "In the City of Sylvia," Catalan filmmaker Jose Luis Guerin has continued to craft inventive cinematic experiments that blend documentary and fictional components with bracingly unpredictable results. "The Academy of the Muses" is the paragon of this unorthodox approach, and an unexpected crowdpleaser, to boot.
At first, Guerin focuses on the divisive lectures of a literature processor at the University of Barcelona who proposes that women should fall in line with the classic definition of the "muse" and use their seductive powers to inspire poetry. While the heavy discourse is engrossing on its own terms, this starting point becomes the first act of a sensational drama in which the student-teacher relationship evolves into ethically dubious territory, as the professor not only sleeps with his students but also attempts to rationalize the decision when faced down by his no-nonsense wife. Shocking, profound, funny and sad, "The Academy of the Muses" is a first-rate illustration of deep thoughts translated into an exciting narrative. Despite the deep concept, it may be closest we get to a crossover work from the ever-impressive Guerin.
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An early poster for Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari’s "Chevalier" features the cryptic tagline "a buddy movie without buddies," which aptly describes the macho rivalries at its center. Tsangari’s inventive story follows six apparently wealthy men on a ship in the Aegean Sea playing a vaguely-defined game to determine which of them holds the greatest traits. It’s never entirely clear whether they’re all just messing around or feel a deeper urge to triumph in their eccentric contest. The only certainty is Tsangari — whose "Attenberg" was a lovely and unconventional coming-of-age story — has delivered another intriguing and thoroughly original character study, which this time serves as an apt metaphor for Greece’s larger problems.
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Argentine filmmaker Benjamin Naishtat’s debut feature "History of Fear" was a sleeper hit on the 2014 festival circuit that followed an eerie series of events creeping into a gated community from the outside world. The premise offered a keen allegory for Argentina’s problems with class. The 67-minute "El Movimiento" ("The Movement") follows suit with another metaphorical take on contemporary Argentina, this one taking place in the distant past. Set in the plague-riddled deserts of 19th century, "The Movement" unfolds as a black-and-white portrait of various warring factions battling for superiority in a post-apocalyptic landscape.
Gorgeously shot and edited with the edgy intensity of a post-modern western, "The Movement" is equal parts period drama and science fiction parable. Who are these angry men and what defines their cause? The answer is at once open-ended and a precise statement on the ugly power grabs that give way to contemporary society. Like Lisandro Alonso’s "Jauja," Naishtat’s haunting sophomore feature provides a poetic access point for grappling with Argentinean identity. It may be a tough commercial prospect, but the genre elements alone should make it stand out on digital platforms and stimulate further interest in Naishtat’s promising career.
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"No Home Movie"
Chantal Ackerman has been a master of slow burn cinema ever since her 1975 breakthrough "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles," which follows a housewife through her routine over the course of a 200-minute running time. "No Home Movie" brings the filmmaker’s fascination with time in cinema into the 21st century with an intimate diary film about her relationship to her mother, an Auschwitz survivor. Applying a tenderness that calls to mind fellow cinematic diarist Jonas Mekas’ digital video work, "No Home Movie" quietly tracks Ackerman’s sweet conversations with her ailing mom over Skype and in person, while her camera captures additional moments that reveal further textures in their complicated relationship.
At times it seems as though no matter how much they try to get along, mother and daughter can’t fully confront the dark chapters of history that hang over their family legacy. Ackerman intersperses their exchanges with long, pensive shots of outdoor landscapes that keenly reflect her wandering train of thought. The empty scenery suggests that no matter how much her life remains in motion, Ackerman struggles to find clarity in her most personal challenges. While hardly an easy commercial sell, the filmmaker’s street cred among cinephiles — and her ability to keep her style relevant in the digital age — guarantee that "No Home Movie" has an audience waiting for it.
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South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s work tends to blend together, but that usually enhances its appeal. There has rarely been a better instance of this phenomenon than his latest feature, which won the Golden Leopard at Locarno this year. "Right Now, Wrong Then" is actually the same movie played through twice with slight variations — and equally charming results. The movie follows a conceit not unlike "Groundhog Day," with characters enduring an identical experience and making small but notably different actions that lead to varied outcomes. Ham Sung meets Hee-jung, grabs a drink with her, falls in love and joins her at a party; the next day, he attends a Q&A for one of his movies. Then the whole story restarts. Both segments contain a mixture of good and bad judgement, leaving one to wonder which half actually corresponds to the two outcomes described by the title. That’s the greatest triumph of "Right Now, Wrong Then": While intensely familiar, it still manages to surprise.
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Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam’s movies tend to take the form of black comedies where doomed characters are trapped by bizarre circumstances. Here, the plot is fairly straightforward: A pair of killers cope with their families and their targets at once. While more readily accessible, "Schneider vs. Bax" delivers the rare joy ride in which everything going wrong feels exactly right. On the one hand, the premise unfolds in fairly basic terms, with the majority of the running time building to a showdown between two hit men unwittingly assigned to kill each other. But neither man is your typical gunslinger: Bax (van Warmerdam) is a drug-addled writer; Schneider (Tom Dewispelaere) is a suburban dad. Eventually, blood spills — though not, initially, where one might expect. Imbued with ludicrous mischief worthy of the Coen brothers, "Schneider vs. Bax" is a dark comedy of errors in which everyone has a plan that somehow fails. Chaos is the source of every punchline.
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Judging by recent portraits of neurotic, at times contemptible male anti-heroes in recent releases ranging from Rick Alverson’s "The Comedy" (and his follow-up, the upcoming "Entertainment") to Joel Potrykus’ "Buzzard," American independent film is getting weirder and angrier to fit our confused times. "Slackjaw" is the latest beguiling example, and one that deserves the cult following it could easily develop.
Director Zach Weintraub’s hilariously strange and fleeting comedy follows two men who agree to be part of an experiment at a mysterious new corporation that shows up in their sleepy town. While one of them gets picked for the job and promptly vanishes, the other endures an increasingly cryptic set of experiences: He runs into an old high school pal and attempts to rekindle a band from their teenage years, only to dredge up old rivalries and regrets; in the meantime, a strange sheet-clad ghost pursues him on a bicycle and other figures wander in and out of his consciousness. The whole thing culminates with an American flag face painting and lots of hot dogs.
Is Weintraub attempting an urgent statement on the claustrophobic powers of modern capitalism? Or just a trippy, hypnotizing portrait of obnoxious blue collar bros? Only one thing is certain: With a dash of Alverson and a dollop of Potrykus, "Slackjaw" provides yet another example of an outlaw attitude that’s alive and well in American movies.
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It may seem reductive to compare French filmmaker Catherine Corsini’s "Summertime" ("La Belle Saison") to the acclaimed "Blue is the Warmest Color" simply because both revolve around the ups and downs of lesbian lovers awakening to their mutual desires. But it goes much further than that: Both movies find a young, provincial woman falling for an older intellectual, while grappling with the means of expressing her identity, sexual or otherwise. Writer-director Corsini ("Three Worlds") adopts a quietly unassuming approach in her 1973-set portrait of the life of 23-year-old Delphine (Izïa Higelin), who lives in the French countryside with her stern parents as they look down on her apparent inability to find a husband.
After fleeing to the city, she meets 35-year-old Carole (Cécile De France), who’s in a relationship with a man but quickly falls in love with Delphine. Corsini does a fine job of illustrating their evolving lust, as the movie climaxes in the countryside, where Delphine must confront her traditionalist roots once and for all. Elegantly shot with a keenly intelligent screenplay, "Summertime" is an involving drama that takes place in the past but nevertheless feels strikingly contemporary.
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The travails of ultra-Orthodox judaism don’t get more twisted than "Tikkun," the unsettling black-and-white drama from Israeli filmmaker Avishai Sivan. Set in an insular religious community, the story revolves around a young man whose near-death experience sends him on a path toward secularism that puts his family on edge. Swearing off meat and running away from home, he gets his first taste of sexual freedoms while contemplating the nature of his rebellion. Sparse dialogue and visionary dream sequences (beware the talking reptilian deity that emerges from the toilet!) endow "Tikkun" with a frightening expressionistic quality. But it’s not without numerous contemplative moments, including a beautifully poetic scene in which the young man compares his shifting mindset to staring directly at the sun. A subversive riff on ideological restrictions, "Tikkun" is bound to start conversations among genre aficionados and religious scholars alike.
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Otar Iosseliani’s name may not have much traction in the United States, but the 81-year-old French-Georgian director’s playful style has a universal appeal that shows no sign of letting up. "Winter Song" is the latest delightful example — an alternately tragic and funny odyssey from a master of striking that balance. Iosseliani’s narrative eventually settles into a disarming buddy comedy featuring two older men (Amiran Amiranashvili and legendary French funny man Pierre Étaix). The duo find themselves caught between their rebellious tendencies — spying on neighbors, participating in protests — and their youthful energy as they wander around town engaging in various misadventures. From the confines of this disarming scenario, Iosseliani builds a spellbinding world, where the seemingly barren wall of a building can suddenly develop a magical door to an outdoor wonderland, and top hats can flutter down the street in harmony following a gust of wind. (Oh, let’s not forget about the escaped cow.)
The loose set of events intersect at various satisfying points, with the ambivalence of a local despot having a direct impact on the fate of the movie’s doleful protagonists. Blending slapstick comedy with a moving statement on mortality, Iosseliani suggests that while the universe may contain endless hurdles, life always goes on.
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