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Under New Guidance, Locarno Dashes Through Busy 63rd Year

Under New Guidance, Locarno Dashes Through Busy 63rd Year

Olivier Père left no doubt about his roots when he abandoned his position as the artistic director of Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes to hold the same job at the Locarno Film Festival this year. A montage of notable filmmakers whose early works premiered in Locarno played for about a minute before each competition screening, boasting names of established directors ranging from Stanley Kubrick to George Lucas. With a majestic score setting the tone, the introductory bit looked nearly identical to the one that Père commissioned back in his Fortnight days. The message, for those paying attention to such things, was clear: Père, an avowed cinephile, was out to change Locarno — not the other way around.

The festival, which wrapped its 63rd year over the weekend, has steadily developed a prestigious reputation as one of the oldest events of its kind. Nevertheless, in recent years Locarno has not been known for major discoveries or high profile international premieres, which some blamed on the tamer choices made by previous artistic director Frédéric Maire. In contrast, Père’s selection — including 50 world premieres, many from first-time filmmakers — created a noticeable tension among ticket-buyers less interested in audacious cinema than glitzy fanfare.

An example could be found on the opening night. Nestled at the northern tip of Lake Maggiore on the cusp of the Alps, the Swiss-Italian town’s Piazza Grande hosts a magnificent outdoor screening venue each night, with an audience as large as 8,000 people when it doesn’t rain. Last year, the expansive arena screened Fox Searchlight’s “(500) Days of Summer,” an easy crowd-pleaser that obviously fits the agenda of moviegoers looking for basic entertainment. Père, however, took a radically different route, screening “Deep in the Woods,” Benoit Jacquot’s dark psychological thriller about sexual deviance in the South of France, as the Piazza’s opening night selection. Not everyone was pleased: Word on the street was that Swiss president Doris Leuthard left the screening after 30 minutes.

As a popular destination for affluent German tourists and others driven to indulge in European luxuries, Locarno could easily cater to local interests rather than play a progressive role in the global festival dynamic. After all, festival president Marco Solari also heads the city’s tourism office, a conflict that could place the city’s reputation as a vacation spot ahead of the need for quality among the programming selections.

But with Père on board, Locarno seems poised to become less about its glorious locale than its relevance to the industry. The current year saw the launch of “Industry Days,” a frenzied three-day period at the start of the festival during which distributors were able to see all the films in competition. “We need to have an industry to help these films,” Père told indieWIRE during a chat in his office last week. “I want to make Locarno a very important appointment every year for everyone making cinema.”

Olivier Père, the new artistic director of Locarno, is looking to shake up the festival’s offerings. [Photo by Eric Kohn]

Locarno locals may feel differently about that. A sign in the middle of town marks the point where its 116-year-old municipal school will supposedly get turned into the festival’s “Casa del Cinema,” a projected headquarters not unlike Toronto’s recently unveiled Bell Lightbox. Some veterans of the festival expressed skepticism about the Casa’s projected opening date (“a few years”), sounding about as convinced about the headquarters as they are that Locarno’s Castle Visconteo was built by Leonardo Da Vinci . Meaning, not much, but they’re happy to embrace the cause anyway.Ultimately, recent Locarno attendees expressed more support of the festival than its specific home. National press has assailed the festival for remaining within the close quarters of Locarno, with some pundits suggesting a shift to the comparatively larger space in neighboring Lugano.

But the constant chatter about location and purpose have yet to wear down Père, whose first Locarno program showcased a wide variety of ambitious productions from around the world. The quality of Locarno’s program is far from perfect, but Père’s willingness to take chances yields one of the more fascinating larger festival line-ups that I’ve encountered this year. Slimming down the program to three competitions — Piazza Grande, International Competition and Filmmakers of the Present — Père has created a unique environment where obscure finds like a D.I.Y. production from Romania (“Belly of the Whale”) can stand on even footing with a German midlife crisis story (“At Ellen’s Age”) and an American indie (“Cold Weather”) already familiar to readers of this site.

A movie like “Belly of the Whale,” directed by two Romanian women and centered entirely around one evening in which a few characters watch Robert Altman’s “M*A*S*H” while searching for a missing cell phone, has very few prospects of finding an audience beyond the festival circuit. Within the confines of Locarno, however, it becomes an object of cinematic scrutiny that validates the innovation behind its creation. Shot in long takes with largely improvised dialogue, “Belly of the Whale” is almost devoid of narrative, instead focusing on the neurotic personas at the center of a single, rather inconsequential situation, and making the details come alive. It was hardly my favorite of the festival — that honors belongs to the innovative Serbian musical “White White World,” which certainly does deserve a post-festival audience — but I’m grateful for the opportunity to have seen it. This experiential quality of Locarno’s diversity is key to its design.

“We are not looking for masterpieces in every section,” Père said. “I think that maybe a couple of films can pretend to be masterpieces. I’m not obsessed with them. I’m obsessed with daring, original and surprising films. We prefer to support encouraging first features rather than more successful but conventional films made by established directors.”

Indeed, as larger festivals go, Locarno mostly avoids the red carpet frenzy. Its biggest celebrity visitor was John C. Reilly, the recipient of a career retrospective, while Swiss legend Alain Tanner took home the festival’s Leopard of Honor. Other notable filmmakers received various accolades throughout the festival, including Chinese director Jia Zhangke and, in a hilariously unorthodox move by Père, B-movie aficionado Menahem Golan. “Locarno should become one of the biggest festivals in the world!” Golan cheerfully exclaimed while receiving his award in the Piazza Grande, as it was launching its first edition, an assertion that caused some folks in the crowd to murmur in frustration.

Someone should let Golan know that growth is the least of Locarno’s worries. The festival reported a total of 148,436 audience members this year (down from last year’s 157,057, a drop attributed to rain keeping people out of the Piazza). That’s quite a hefty turnout for a program of 280 films (compared to 397 in 2009), especially when you consider the opportunities for smaller movies to unspool for large crowds they may never reach again.

The Locarno Film Festival reported an attendance of 148,000 this year, down from last year’s 157,000. [Photo by Eric Kohn]

Among the Filmmakers of the Present selections, standouts include Kitao Sakurai’s “Aardvark,” perhaps the first martial arts revenge movie to star a blind actor, and “The Fourth Portrait,” a bittersweet drama from Thailand in which a young boy copes with the death of his father. The loopy Canadian existential mystery “You Are Here” provided the festival’s most original narrative experiment, while the Serbian “Tilva Ros,” a tale of rebellious youth in an impoverished mining town, offered the most typically satisfying emotional arc.For me, the top title of the section was “Foreign Parts,” a wonderfully eerie documentary about life among the dying junkyard businesses of Willets Point, Queens, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently paved the way for massive renovation. Directed by Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, the movie builds much of its power from its post-apocalyptic audiovisual ingredients. Never leaving the constraints of its location, the movie delves deep into a world composed of machinery in motion and the frustrated lineup of drug addicts and struggling business owners aware of their community’s impending demise. The characters’ colorful anguish turns “Foreign Parts” into a dark comedy about the casualties of modern development. Imagine Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop” remade by Harmony Korine and you might start to get a sense for the haunting, otherworldly atmosphere the filmmakers have managed to create.

The Piazza Grande section had nothing so daring on its slate, with the Duplass Brothers’ “Cyrus” winding up as one of the best-received entries. Other aspects of the program that were heavy on genre generated similar good vibes. These included “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale,” where hunters chased down Santa Claus, the impressively old school zombie thriller “Rammbock,” and the unequivocally awesome spectatorial headtrip “Rubber,” which isn’t so much about a killer tire as it is about the appeal of watching one. The Piazza audience’s enthusiasm for “Rubber” will most likely carry over to its screenings at upcoming U.S. festivals.

Israeli director Eran Riklis’s soul-searching drama “The Human Resources Manager,” which won the section’s audience award, sports a fine performance by Mark Ivanir as a Jerusalem-based worker whose cold exterior melts away when one of his employees dies in a suicide bombing. The ensuing road trip, in which the character decides to take the woman’s body back to her family in Romania, grows weary after an hour despite a competent pace. The Piazza audience loved the sincerity of its finale, which probably bodes well for future engagements.

I was personally more excited by Cédric Anger’s tightly assembled crime drama “L’Avocat,” a classically enjoyable tale of corruption and moral confusion. French star Benoit Magimel plays a conflicted lawyer whose exploding career leads him to accidentally work for a criminal organization, a fact he comes to realize once it’s too late to pull out. Stylishly made with a Scorsese-level meshing of humor and suspense, “L’Avocat” has the potential to get recognized as a decent ride that does justice to its roots.

Sadly, I’m not nearly as certain about the future of Russian animator Garri Bardin’s feature-length adaptation “The Ugly Duckling,” a lovely stop-motion affair that takes occasional forays into darkness worthy of Jan Svankmajer. The screening found several families in attendance, and many older audiences equally immersed in the timeless (and timelessly adorable) story.

On the whole, the Piazza only had a few entries that lacked commercial appeal, whereas the International Competition practically embraced obscurity. The festival gained early publicity from Père’s controversial decision to show Bruce LaBruce’s experimental gay porn “L.A. Zombie,” an amusingly muddled affair that builds most of its shock factor out of porn star Francois Sagat’s ability to resurrect the dead with his manhood. After my original review cited the numerous walkouts at the movie’s premiere, LaBruce protested on Twitter, claiming that his press agents noticed only two people exiting the theater. Anyone who was actually in attendance at the late night premiere can attest that said press agents either weren’t paying attention or lied, but why dispute it either way? Getting ostracized should serve as the movie’s badge of pride.

Elsewhere in the International Competition: My festival highlight came with “White White World,” a Serbian drama that combines elements of Greek tragedies, musicals and deadpan humor into a remarkably unique product. The best debut was Marian Crisan’s “Morgen,” a Romanian story where a fisherman attempts to assist an illegal Kurdish immigrant with mixed results.

I didn’t see the Chinese entry “Winter Vacation,” which won the section, but this year’s jury (headed by filmmaker Eric Khoo) was especially partial to Quebec-based filmmaker Denis Côté’s “Curling,” a sensationally enigmatic character study that has lonely janitor Jean-Francois (Emmanuel Bilodeau) dividing his time between tending to his reclusive daughter and seeking romantic companionship. Côté loads each scene with extreme subtext, and we begin to wonder if the father-daughter relationship has subversive connotations. The heavy snowfall engulfing the town begins to take on metaphoric dimensions — Jean-Francois’s secrets lie beneath several layers of discontent.

No one can doubt the effectiveness of Père’s ability to put filmmakers at early stages of their careers at the forefront of the festival, but this year’s chief appeal belonged to a long-dead master: Ernst Lubitsch, Hollywood’s grand architect of the romantic comedy, received a massive retrospective that covered every phase of his career. Scholar Joseph McBride, currently working on a book entitled “How Would Lubitsch Do It,” introduced many of the screenings, but the movies speak for themselves. The famous “Lubitsch Touch” carries through the three decades of his career, from his frenzied silents to his equally hyperactive talkies. Sexuality and marital dysfunction often seep into his plots with an élan that still feels daring today.

Studios continue to churn out romantic comedies superficially based on scenarios Lubitsch used as a starting point (consider how “The Shop Around the Corner” was rearranged into “You’ve Got Mail”), but his ability to create a sense of moral ambiguity — particularly when a man must choose between two women, and makes the safe choice rather than the one that guarantees a happy ending — is unparalleled. Lubitsch’s 1927’s “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg” creates the semblance of a fairy tale romance and then knocks it down; the giddy pre-code innuendo throughout “The Smiling Lieutenant” pays off with a pragmatic finish, as Claudette Colbert teaches Miriam Hopkins how to please her man, when Colbert’s character could just as easily steal him away. Lubitsch’s classic anti-Nazi farce “To Be Or Not To Be” (which makes “Inglourious Basterds” look particularly glib) played in the Piazza during my last night in Locarno. The audience had such a grand time that many of them stuck around even after the rain and lightning began.

The purely dramatic “The Man I Killed” shows Lubitsch’s potential for applying his touch to non-comedic scenarios, but he sadly died before he could further explore that angle: Francois Truffaut noted that the director “filmed himself to death” at the age of 55. That’s a questionable goal for the upstart filmmakers featured in Locarno’s 2010 edition. Many in attendance — encountering Lubitsch films for the first time — possibly admired the vitality of his oeuvre, rather than acknowledging the odds of their own sudden ends as a result of their art. The festival should do the same when considering its legacy and contemplating its future.

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