Over the past four years, the Locarno Film Festival rapidly increased its global profile in the film festival world for good reason: The program, organized by former Cannes Directors Fortnight head Olivier Pére, appealed to distinct cinephile tastes even while courting an active European marketplace. A number of world premieres at the Swiss gathering, which has taken place in August every year since 1946, eventually screen at bigger fall festivals like Toronto and Venice, but at Locarno some of the more traditionally "difficult" fare gets the chance to stand tall: Last year, for instance, the avant garde fishing documentary "Leviathan" was one of the biggest stars in town, even as the festival's massive outdoor Piazza Grande section screened the likes of "Magic Mike" nearby.
The festival managed a very rare mix of highbrow sensibilities and star power, a combination epitomized by the youngish Pére's charisma and exceptional knowledge of movies.
And then, weeks after completing his third year as the festival's artistic director, Pére suddenly quit.
Rumors surrounding his abrupt departure ranged from frustrations over the politics of running a large festival to more mundane personal issues. Whatever the reason, Pére's departure caught everyone in Locarno's orbit by surprise, including his staff. By September, he had settled into a new job at ARTE France, and his replacement, Carlo Chatrian, had massive shoes to fill. Chatrian, a soft-spoken Italian journalist and critic who had aided in the programming of the festival for several years, lacked the same high profile that Pére had already obtained when he took over the festival thanks to his background at Cannes.
But despite the quick turnover, Chatrian faced the programming challenges by simply moving forward. "I knew that Olivier left a big impact on the festival," Chatrian said in a recent interview. "I admired his work." When he first addressed the staff in his new position, Chatrian said, "I told everybody I didn't want to make any big changes."
As a result, aided in part by director of programming and fellow Locarno stalwart Mark Peranson, Chatrian has assembled a typically promising lineup for the festival, which begins its 66th edition on Wednesday. It's the usual meaty blend of challenging cinematic treats paired with bigger lures for the local crowd. Werner Herzog receives a special prize while the annual retrospective salutes George Cukor. The Piazza Grande section hosts international premieres for studio movies "2 Guns" (the opening night selection), "We're the Millers" and "About Time," while 18 of the 20 films in competition are world premieres with descriptions that could make anyone tracking some of the best filmmakers working around the world today drool: New films from the likes of Hong Sang Soo ("Our Sunhi"), Albert Serra ("The Story of My Death") and Kiyoshi Kurosawa ("Real"), whose sensibilities couldn't be more dissimilar, will all debut at the festival. When the program was announced a few weeks ago, nobody took note of any dramatic shifts in quality compared with previous years.
Chatrian sounded pleased. Starting at Cannes, he said, he delivered committed pitches to various sales companies and filmmakers when making the case for their films to come to Locarno. "I tried, personally, to explain the reasons why Locarno was a good place for them," he said. "I did it on the spot after having seen these films." In Chatrian's estimation, with the exception of the studio films at the festival, Locarno's lineup foregrounds movies particularly noteworthy for unique visions. "Films that are in the point of view of a director are more relevant to us than the commercial or financial issues," he said. "Locarno is smaller than Toronto or Venice, but it's better for launching certain kinds of films."
However, not every emphatic request led to success. Chatrian said he made several efforts to program beloved Korean director Bong Joon-ho's first English language feature, "Snowpiercer," but to no avail. "It's how things go," he said. "There were too many practical details that made it impossible."
But Chatrian's eagerness to show "Snowpiercer," which stars Chris Evans and revolves around a post-apocalyptic storyline, points to Chatrian's commitment to Locarno's variety. Unlike Cannes, which emphasizes auteur directors but also maintains a close allegiance to a recurring cast of familiar names, Locarno's trademark is the wideness of the net it casts. "I personally didn't try to choose the films by paying attention to different genres," Chatrian said. "But when I see the program now from an exterior point of view, I see the diversity." He pointed out the way program makes room for inclusion of "The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears," an homage to B-movies, as well as "a radical film" like Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu's "When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism," another formally challenging work from the director of "Police, Adjective."
For Chatrian, these kind of contrasts are key. "They represent my curiosity and my will to show all different kinds of storytelling," he said.
Of course, that also includes Hollywood cinema, where Chatrian admits to have faced a learning curve. "I know the European situation with independent productions, but it was new experience for me with the American studio system," he said, recalling a trip to Los Angeles last December. "It's important because people who go to the Piazza expect this type of film. This is a party for all kinds of cinema."
Chatrian also took into consideration Locarno's distinctive marketplace: During the first three days of the festival, industry attendees can view all films in the program, many of which land deals with European distributors. "Without a market, a festival nowadays cannot exist," he said, but Locarno's eclectic but largely non-commercial programming choices mean that the biggest distributors may not target the festival the same way they do others. "For me, it's quite clear that there's no chance we can raise a market that can compete with Cannes or Toronto," he said. "The festival and the market should go together, to share the same identity. People who come to Locarno know what sort of films we're going to show."
And Chatrian can relate. Though it's easy to position him as the new guy, Locarno isn't exactly foreign terrain for the director. "Look, I can say that I know the festival pretty well," he said. "I've worked for it for the last 10 years. I know that if you want to have a good program, you don't have to worry much about expectations."
That being said, he couldn't ignore Locarno's track record. "I paid attention not only to the last three years but the long tradition Locarno has," he said. "It's not easy to say, 'I'm not going to be the revolutionary guy,' but I feel that this is right."
The Locarno Film Festival runs August 7 - 17. Indiewire will be covering films at the festival on the main site as well as publishing work by members of its Critics Academy over the next two weeks.