By Indiewire | Indiewire August 21, 2003 at 2:00AM
A-List Atmosphere Without the Catwalk At Locarno 2003
by Susan Buzzelli
Black and yellow leopard spots -- a symbol of the Locarno International Film Festival's top prize, the Golden Leopard -- paper fans, and flip-flops were essential accessories during the 56th edition of Switzerland's largest international film festival. A European heat wave did not deter a record-high number of professionals and cineastes from gathering in the Italian-speaking town for a 10-day event that generated criticism from industry representatives, but pleased the public. Participants relied on bottled water, cones of gelato, and an occasional cold beer to stay cool during 90-degree days as they crowded into 400-plus films screened in various venues -- from the massive Fevi auditorium to the tiny Palavideo -- sprinkled throughout the Lake Maggiore resort.
More than one person attending the opening night cocktail party at the base of the medieval stone Castello, followed by a screening of Vincente Minnelli's "The Band Wagon" in the open-air Piazza Grande theater, wore leopard-print dresses, hats, or ties to mark the occasion. Local shops and restaurants also celebrated the festival with gusto. Every store window in the town overflowed with black and yellow ribbons and spotted souvenirs -- from pocketknives to tableware to jewelry. Even local buses bore a leopard stripe to salute Switzerland's ever-expanding festival.
Artistic director Irene Bignardi, at the helm for the last three years, has managed to raise Locarno's profile from a regional event with a picturesque setting to an international, A-list affair. The presence of a dozen new buyers this year -- including New York-based Kino International and Zeitgeist -- is a testament to the festival's increasing importance. According to Hyoe Yamayoto of Kino International, Locarno is making progress, but still falls short of other A-list events. "Locarno's programming is sparse compared to Rotterdam or Montreal," he said. "But I do think that it is a great festival and an important cultural event for locals."
Other critics blasted Bignardi for failing to attract the big name celebrities expected of a high profile festival. Roger Crotti, head of Buena Vista International Switzerland, said in a controversial interview with the newspaper Basler Zeitung that Bignardi should have lured bigger names to this year's fest. After all, he said, George Clooney lives on nearby Lake Como. Bignardi countered that Locarno's traditional focus on independent and avant-garde film leaves little room for Hollywood glitterati looking for a "catwalk."
Regional celebrities from Europe, India, and the United States added at least a dash of glamour to the proceedings. Aishwarya Rai, India's biggest star, took a break from a shoot in London to support Rituparno Ghosh's "Chokher Bali." French up-and-comers Aure Atika, a lead in Emilie Deleuze's "Mister V," and Jeremie Renier, star of Jean-Marc Moutout's "Work Hard, Play Hard" were also in town. Wiry Italian star Luigi Lo Cascio came to promote Alessandro Piva's "Mio Cognato," set in Bari, and director Ken Loach swung through to pick up this year's Leopard of Honor.
Otherwise, festival-goers had to make do with an offbeat program of mostly independent features, documentaries, and shorts that ran the gamut of styles and genres, but tended to focus on such social ills as prostitution, war, and dysfunctional families. Professionals kept their eye on films in the International Competition, Filmmakers of the Present and Video Competition categories, while the public flocked to screenings at the Piazza Grande. All That Jazz, an extensive retrospective of jazz in film, homages to Katharine Hepburn, Frederico Fellini, and Ruth Waldburger and a spotlight on Cuban Cinema rounded out the mix.
A seven-member jury, led by Le Monde editor Franck Nouchi, shocked nearly everyone when it awarded Pakistani director Sabiha Sumar with the Golden Leopard for her debut film "Silent Waters." Most attendees agreed that the best of this year's unimpressive bunch was "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring" by South Korean hotshot Kim Ki-duk. Journalists attending the press screening were so moved that they applauded at the end of the beautifully shot story about a monk and his young pupil. The jury, however, unanimously agreed that Sumar's politically loaded period piece about the rise of fundamentalism in Pakistan, produced by a French, German and Pakistani team, deserved top accolades. Last year's jury also voted against the grain when they gave the gold to Iain Dilthey's somber drama "The Longing."
Films from Southeastern Europe, as well as Japan, Iran, and America, scooped up the remaining official jury honors. Pjer Zalica won the second place Silver Leopard for "Gori Vatra," a satire about post-war Bosnia, and Calin Netzer won the special jury prize for "Maria," his portrait of a desperate mother struggling to survive in modern-day Romania. Serban Ionescu, Maria's lead, picked up the best actor Leopard. Special mentions went to Alireza Amini's "Tiny Snowflakes" and Masahiro Kobayashi's "Onna Rihatsushi No Koi."
Veteran set designer Catherine Hardwicke won the first or second feature Silver Leopard for "Thirteen," her debut in the director's chair. The Sundance winner, starring up-and-comer Evan Rachel Wood and Holly Hunter, is a raw, gripping portrayal of a 13-year-old girl's destructive passage into adulthood that is destined for critical, if not commercial, acclaim. Hunter, as the teenager's recovering-alcoholic mother, deservedly tied with Diana Dumbrava of "Maria" and Kirron Kher of "Silent Waters" for the best actress Golden Leopard.
Ki-duk's "Spring" may have been overlooked by the official jury, but the director's ninth film collected the Don Quixote, CICAE/ARTE, and Netpac prizes. The junior jury also acknowledged "Spring," along with "Gori Vatra," "Tiny Snowflakes" and Jean-Francois Amiguet's "Au Sud Des Nuages." FIPRESCI tapped the racy "Sexual Dependency" by Rodrigo Bellott, while the Ecumenical Jury Prize went to "Silent Waters."
Catherine Hardwicke didn't make an appearance in Locarno, but a few other American directors stopped off to screen their new work and meet up with potential European buyers. Though Amy Glazer is one of the West Coast's top theater directors, the San Jose State University professor was visibly nervous during the screening of her second short film "Ball Lightening." She worked closely with friend and screenwriter Barry Gifford -- the scribe behind "Wild at Heart" and "Lost Highway" -- to direct the simple, yet surreal Video Competition entry about a teenager pining for her estranged brother.
"It's over. I can go home now," she exclaimed when the post-screening Q&A session had wrapped. She said that after she finishes a third short film, based on Jessica Goldburg's award-winning play "Refuge," she plans to tackle a feature-length "infertility comedy." "A short is not worth it for the stress," she said. " I may as well do a feature."
Film festival darling Andrew Jarecki, director of the ever-popular "Capturing the Friedmans," and Matthew Barney, the New York artist lapping up international praise for his "Cremaster Cycle" also brought their work to Locarno. Another American, legendary film critic Roger Ebert, took time off from his job as chief Chicago Sun-Times film critic to talk about his television show "Ebert & Roeper" during a roundtable event.
Roundtables, jazz concerts, and DJ sets on offer throughout the festival could not compete with Locarno's claim to fame -- twilight screenings in the massive, outdoor theater set up in the ton's main square. Affluent baby boomers from Milan and Zurich, young couples holding hands, gaggles of university students, and pairs of retirees filled in most of the 7,000 seats packed into Piazza Grande every evening. Features in this year's repertoire ranged from audience award winner "The Miracle from Bern," a soccer drama, to Bollywood hit "Raghu Romeo" to Mark Rucker's campy musical "Die Mommie Die!" Since Switzerland has three official languages, organizers offered a high-profile flick for all three language groups. French-speakers turned out for Philippe Le Guay's lively "Le Cout de la Vie," Italians filled seats for Alessandro Piva's atmospheric "Mio Cognato"; and German-speakers made up the crowd for Dominique De Rivaz's dreadfully boring "My Name is Bach."
Everyone, it seemed, turned out for a screening of Nigel Cole's comedy "Calendar Girls," starring Helen Mirren and Julie Waters. Sunflowers, which feature strongly in the film, were passed out to an estimated 9,500 moviegoers who crammed into the Piazza to watch the true-life tale of 12 Yorkshire ladies who strip for a charity calendar. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was guaranteed a seat, but hundreds of latecomers had to sit on the cobblestone ground or lean against the columns that ring the piazza to get a glimpse at the screen.
Festival organizers know that an atmospheric setting is one of Locarno's selling points, so they try their hardest to capitalize on the relaxed, resort atmosphere that permeates Locarno in the summertime. Though journalists and industry representatives didn't have time between screenings to sun on nearby beaches or explore the botanical gardens of Brissago Island, they could take a drink in the leafy courtyard of a palazzo that doubles as a delegate center, listen to jazz acts lakeside or grab a plate of curry at Villagio Del Festival kiosks. At the very least, they could walk along the aquamarine lake, set against mountains, on their way to the next screening. With or without celebrities, even the staunchest critics of this year's edition have to admit that few other festivals can boast a more A-list atmosphere.