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How Locarno Got Its Spots: From Winner ‘Right Now, Wrong Then’ and ‘Chevalier’ to Breakout Swiss Docs

How Locarno Got Its Spots: From Winner 'Right Now, Wrong Then' and 'Chevalier' to Breakout Swiss Docs

Locarno has long beckoned as an impeccably programmed international film festival, set in the southern Switzerland lake region, close to stunning Lake Como (which long-time habitue George Clooney is reportedly abandoning), complete with 24-hour casino and “Grand Budapest”-style funicular. 

I started out by breaking one of my travel rules: never fly straight from L.A. to Europe. In this case, the Sarajevo Film Festival was winging me via Turkish Airlines, so I booked an overnight 11-hour flight (scoring an open seat in the middle!) to global hub Istanbul (where travelers from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe converge). Turkish Airlines offered cheap and strong wifi, convenient power plugs, wide entertainment selections, and yummy freshly cooked food with free wine. I am a convert!

I then flew to Milan; the airport is a massively deluxe shopping mall offering many exotic foods for sale. There a driver picked up me and another passenger and sped north into the night, expertly navigating through a torrential downpour, endless mountain tunnels and flooded winding roads to Locarno’s old town, where the narrow mom and pop Hotel Giacometti was cleverly hidden away on a narrow cobbled street. Did I pack Melatonin? No. I stared into the void for hours. 

The next day, Indiewire’s Eric Kohn showed me the rounds, including the Piazza Grande (the largest open air cinema in Europe) where they have nightly screenings for 8000 (when they aren’t rained out) with superb projection and clear sound. I watched a Bollywood entry, Anurag Kashyap’s ’60s gangster drama “Bombay Velvet,” under the stars, delightful. Festival artistic director Carlo Chatrian, in his third year, programs wide audience entertainments for local audiences in the Piazza, from “Southpaw” and “Ricki and the Flash” to “Trainwreck,” as Universal jetted Amy Schumer in to launch her European tour, complete with entourage and hilarious press conference; the studio is tub-thumping for a new comedy star who is unknown outside America, in countries that have not seen her TV show. The rest of the festival program is comprised of more rigorous art films, many from emerging filmmakers not yet anointed by other festivals, for cinephiles. Being selected by Locarno adds credibility for future festival bookings.

I sampled four Swiss films at the festival before a critics’ panel on Tuesday (podcast here). The two fiction films were weaker: “Heimatland,” a film unaccountably directed by ten indistinguishable directors attempting a seamless narrative about immigration issues, and Lionel Baier’s “La Vanite,” a well-made but conventional drama about an older man who’s tired of fighting cancer and wants to end his life; Carmen Maura plays the empathetic woman who is supposed to assist him.

My two favorites were non-fiction films: “The Day the Sun Fell” is about rookie Swiss filmmaker Aya Domenig’s Japanese grandparents and the aftermath of Hiroshima; during the filming the nuclear accident at Fukushima brought new resonance to her moving documentary as she followed the movement to bring truth and transparency to the nuclear dangers faced by Japan. 

And Nicolas Steiner’s stunningly visual second feature “Above and Below” tracks four narratives set in the Nevada desert about people who for various reasons live underground–some are homeless, surviving in flood-threatened tunnels under Las Vegas; one musician lives alone, harmonious with nature, in a desert cave; another group is reproducing in the red desert the conditions of living on Mars for a future space probe. Notably, Steiner refused to work in anonymity on “Heimatland,” while his singular standout feature, which was not supported by the usual government subsidies, has been picked up for North American distribution by Oscilloscope. 

The festival threw retrospectives on two very different macho directors, the late Sam Peckinpah (one panel featured two of my favorite Peckinpah authors, Garner Simmons and Paul Seydor, who has just published an in-depth examination of the making of “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”), whose hugely influential films need to be seen by more people; and the very much alive Michael Cimino (his Q & A here) as well as Conversations with Edward Norton and sound and editing genius and Vision Award-winner Walter Murch (video below).

“Nowadays Peckinpah is one of the directors most quoted, but I’m not sure the new generation has a chance to see the films,” Chatrian told me. “Young cinephiles know and have heard about ‘The Wild Bunch,’ ‘Pat Garrett,’ and ‘Straw Dogs,’ but I’m not sure they have seen the films. Watching the films now, they made a different impression than when I was 18; then it was the violence element. Today I am more touched by the poetry. Peckinpah was a man in love with classic cinema, but his cinema brings the post-modern aesthetic, so he is a bridge between past and contemporary.”

Why bring in Michael Cimino? Like Peckinpah, said Chatrian, his films add vibrancy to the Locarno palette. “To have films that are bigger than reality, than life, to convey a sense of the epic– the landscape and the man–is important. When composing the program it’s like a painting; I need different colors. It’s interesting to watch the films of Cimino, a director I cherish, in comparison to the new films playing now, as a counterpoint.”

Also important to sprawling Locarno is an industry presence; for five years the festival screens their acquisition titles during the first three “Industry Days” for about 200 buyers, programmers and sales companies to view all at once. They fly themselves in, but the festival provides four nights at a hotel and provides daily lunches. They also display First Looks at new films in post-production from a single country; last year Brazil’s “The Second Mother” went on to show in Sundance and Berlin and opened this year’s Sarajevo; this year was Israel. Much networking ensues. True-crime Austrian thriller “Jack” picked up a sales agent during the Industry Days this year. 

New York distributor Richard Lorber, a frequent Locarno attendee, bought “La Sapienza” here last year; New York art-film marketer Ryan Werner checks out the lineup as well.

Also on my Locarno docket were several meetings with this year’s Critics Academy students from all over the world, including Australia, Switzerland, Wales, Montreal, Peru, Germany, Romania and Switzerland–who were being instructed by Kohn and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Brian Brooks as well as Locarno attendees Matt Mueller, Peter Debruge and Boyd van Hoeij. They reported on their favorite movies, so I checked out a few of them. Best of the lot by a mile was “Chevalier,” a delightful comedy of the absurd from Greece (review and roundup here), followed by South Korean Hong Song-soo’s romantic diptich “Right now, Wrong Then,” which won the big jury prize in Locarno. 

The movie follows a South Korean auteur filmmaker making a visit to a small town for a Q & A after his fim. He meets and pursues a young woman–twice. In the first go-round, he’s less straightforward and more drunk; in the second, he is more sincere. Hong wanted to see how his actors would vary the emotions and pacing after showing them the edited first film, while essentially following a very similar playbook. Amazingly, the concept works. This elegantly spare art film, shot in three weeks for about $100,000, will go on to play the New York Film Festival. 

I also checked out a favorite of Film Comment regular Nick Pinkerton, who was enthusiastically interviewing Sergio Oksman, a Madrid filmmaker renowned for his clever shorts who returned to his native Brazil to make hybrid feature “O Futebol.” I watched what looked like a documentary about a man (Oksman) visiting his estranged father in Brazil, having agreed to watch the World Cup finals together. They drive from place to place without talking much to each other, and have minimal dialogue exchanges. Anyone with aging parents will feel the tug of watching an older parent whose health is not great–and sure enough, the man ends up in the hospital during the movie. Oddly, the filmmaker is insisting that this is a fiction feature, which makes no sense to me. It’s unlikely to find much of an audience outside the festival circuit. 

On my last day in Locarno, I walked down by the lake on a hot, hazy and humid day, bought a lemon ice, and swam in the salty waters of the local spa, whose warm mineral baths seem to spill right into the lake. Next stop: Sarajevo!

The Locarno jury awards are below:

Concorso internazionale
Pardo d’oro
JIGEUMEUN MATGO GEUTTAENEUN TEULLIDA (Right Now, Wrong Then) by HONG Sangsoo, South Korea
Premio speciale della giuria (Special Jury Prize)
TIKKUN by Avishai Sivan, Israel
Pardo per la miglior regia (Best direction)
Pardo per la miglior interpretazione femminile (Best actress)
Pardo per la miglior interpretazione maschile (Best actor)
Sangsoo, South Korea
Special Mention
For the script of HAPPY HOUR by HAMAGUCHI Ryusuke, Japan
For the cinematography by Shai Goldman for TIKKUN by Avishai Sivan, Israel
Concorso Cineasti del presente
Pardo d’oro Cineasti del presente – Premio Nescens
THITHI by Raam Reddy, India/USA/Canada
Premio speciale della giuria Ciné+ Cineasti del presente (Special Jury prize)
DEAD SLOW AHEAD by Mauro Herce, Spain/France
Premio per il miglior regista emergente (Prize for the best emerging director)
LU BIAN YE CAN (Kaili Blues) by BI Gan, China
First Feature
Swatch First Feature Award (Prize for Best First Feature)
THITHI by Raam Reddy, India/USA/Canada

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