While the Toronto International Film Festival generates a sea of press coverage and industry activity in the fall, the Locarno Film Festival receives far less attention from the general public. However, the late summer European gathering — which concluded its 69th edition on Sunday — is a major attraction to cinephiles around the world, and the program contains a variety of world premieres that could wind up finding more audiences beyond the festival circuit — if, that is, buyers take note. Here’s a plea for a few of this year’s highlights to find some homes.
“Hermia & Helena”
Argentine director Matias Piñero’s first English-language feature, in which a young woman comes to New York to work on a translation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” is another clever look at the way contemporary characters relate to classic literature to understand their lives. With bit parts for American indie faces Keith Poulson, Dustin Guy Defa and filmmaker Dan Sallitt, it’s also a welcome evolution for Piñero, whose earlier films existed within the confines of his Latin American ecosystem. Here, his style opens up to a deceptively simple look at a carefree young woman (Agustina Muñoz in a layered performance) that gives way to more emotional chords in the final act. It’s further proof that Piñeiro is one of the most innovative filmmakers working today, and a terrific introduction to his talents that should satisfy Shakespeare fans and newbies alike.
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“The Human Surge”
It starts in Buenos Aires, then winds up Mozambique. Once there, Argentine director Eduardo Williams’ first feature “The Human Surge” stops to watch a character urinate on a patch of dirt. After a few moments, the camera wanders closer to his target, zooms into the ground, ventures beneath it, and zeroes in on a tiny ant crawling through the earth. When it resurfaces, we’re suddenly in the Philippines. This maneuver is typical of the acrobatic camerawork that Williams employs throughout his shrewd and inventive feature, the most ambitious debut of the year. While light on narrative, “The Human Surge” presents a fascinating array of young characters leading similarly alienated lives around the world. It’s a remarkable statement on modern society rich in themes and craftsmanship alike.
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Swiss-French director Frédéric Mermoud’s Hitchcockian drama features a powerful turn by Emmanuelle Devos as a middle-aged woman traumatized by the death of her college-age son and driven to track down the culprit. The victim of a hit-and-run, his death is shrouded in mystery, but early on it seems as though Moka has found the culprits: a well-to-do couple living in a classy vacation town. Befriending them without revealing her intentions, Moka steadily works toward her revenge as the film develops a keen suspense around the precise nature of her plan. With its elegant pace and first-rate performances, “Moka” manages to transform the outline of another dour tale about grieving relatives into something far more gripping and unpredictable.
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Locarno Film Festival
Mind-blowing in the best possible way, “The Ornithologist” may not work for everyone, but those willing to embrace its puzzling ingredients will find a rewarding solution: further confirmation of a genuine film artist. The fifth narrative feature of Portugal’s João Pedro Rodrigues continues the soul-searching outlook and inventive storytelling of “The Last Time I Saw Macao” and “To Die Like a Man,” but reaches for even more ambitious territory with equally confounding and enlightening results. A favorite in certain diehard cinephile sects, Rodrigues deserves to find some new fans with this remarkable oddity. The movie depicts the Homeric voyage of a modern-day ornithologist named Fernando (Paul Hamy) who inexplicably transforms into a revered Catholic saint after getting lost in the woods. The details of his journey are difficult to describe and even stranger to experience, but this is a beautiful, haunting movie that will keep viewers talking as they search for meaning in its enigmatic depths.
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Theo Anthony’s essayistic non-fiction feature is a brilliant riff on Baltimore’s history of class struggles that defies categorization. The movie careens from scientific observation and historical overview to spiritual inquiry with a freewheeling approach that never ceases to surprise, even as it maintains a cogent thesis. Both a chronicle of the rat infestation plaguing the city of Baltimore and a broader assessment of its urban development, “Rat Film” manages to say something real and immediate in a fresh and inventive voice. It should generate broader discussions about the way earlier periods of discrimination impact contemporary city life — the rats are an ideal metaphor — but beyond that, it’s also an astonishing cinematic experience that never preaches to its audience.
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