The main attraction at this year’s Locarno Film Festival was the cage fight that one English critic imagined might be taking place as the eleven-day event drew to a close. Contested by two timeless arthouse juggernauts, whose output keeps everyone except the obliviously uninformed masses happy, this celebrity death match—admission to which would have been limited to only the truest, most dedicated cinephiles—would’ve answered the burning question of our traumatized, post-colonial age: who has the bigger benefit-of-doubt cache between Pedro Costa and Lav Diaz?
A year after Diaz handed Albert Serra’s Story of My Death the festival’s Golden Leopard as the president of its international competition jury, he himself took home the top gong for From What Is Before, a five-and-a-half-hour epic that seemingly cannot be referred to as anything other than a five-and-a-half-hour epic. Surviving such a work is, of course, one guarantee of quality: who could possibly brave ridicule by admitting they hadn’t enjoyed something they’d dedicated so much time to? Length might also be a guarantee of success: what better way to justify spending so much time with a movie than to give it the highest accolade you can?
What’s even better, one doesn’t even need to sit through the whole thing when it comes to Diaz: I have it on good, eye-witness authority that of the many critics who subsequently wrote very highly indeed of Norte, the End of History, more than a few fell asleep and/or walked out of its press screening when it premiered in Cannes last year. Good enough for them, good enough for Pedro: I was sitting behind Costa when he fled from Serra’s Leopard-winner last year, around seven minutes shy of its end credits.
There appears to be two kinds of Lav Diaz fans: those for whom certain themes and subject matters are merits in and of themselves, and those who mistake a persistently self-marginalizing approach to politicized storytelling as something other than confused and facile artistry. Put another way, how come Diaz’s detractors tend to come equipped with a list of reasons—uniformly amateurish acting, self-prescribed technical primitivism, pretentious longueurs, a bad-faith approach to editing, unhelpfully hysterical defeatism—whereas his merry band of supporters seem to love him “just because?”
Is it because too many careers depend on the continued advocacy of Filipino cinema’s most reliably inexhaustible sacred cow? Critics, contemporaries, cohorts: these and others unite around the feet of this naked emperor tirelessly chucking compliments at his false radicalism. Meanwhile, we’re in desperate need of some fancy machine that allows us to get things eighteen minutes into a Lav Diaz take that hadn’t registered after thirty seconds. Indeed, to quote a colleague, “Anyone can make a five-and-a-half-hour film if all they want to make is a five-and-a-half-hour film.”
Still, making an insidiously lengthy award-winner is no guarantee of more specific recognition: festival juries are under implicit and arbitrary pressures today to spread the spoils so that each of their obvious candidates can go home as only one of several victors—thereby allowing the fest in question to present its slate of winners as an advertisement for its own diversity. While Connie Nielsen’s jury handed From What Is Before the top gong, for instance, it reserved its Best Director prize for Pedro Costa. To paraphrase a sarcastic quip from James Bond in Skyfall: “Of course they did.”
Costa’s long-awaited Horse Money presents an associative hotchpotch of memories pertaining to the experiences of displaced Cape Verdians now living in Portugal. Following on from Colossal Youth (2006), it again features his regular performer Ventura—this time a trembling bag of nerves moving from one eerily quiet room to the next of something resembling a mental hospital.
Exquisite compositions and delicately delivered dialogue build to a cumulative tone-poem on the traumas felt today by an exiled people still coming to terms with the prolonged fallout of imperialism. Towards its end, Ventura confronts demons both historical and personal in an elevator shaft, in a sequence lifted almost verbatim from “Sweet Exorcist,” Costa’s contribution to the portmanteau project Centro Historico. Needless to say, abstraction is key: more than most, evaluations of Costa’s film seem to vary depending on one’s emotional or cultural proximity to the historical events so obliquely jabbed at throughout.
Locarno’s Special Jury (i.e., runner-up) prize went to Listen Up Philip, whose director Alex Ross Perry was another obvious awards candidate from the moment his film was announced as part of its international competition. Perry did of course star last year in a film by one of Locarno’s chief programmers—who also made a credited appearance in Story of My Death. Make what you will of such accusatory rhetoric—I certainly don’t wish to overstate matters—but festivals won’t save themselves from incestuous ruin, and they’re not doing themselves any favors by brazenly programming and rewarding the people they already call their pals.
Certainly, one’s frustrations are compounded by the sense of discovery genuinely provided in other, lesser-known sections of Locarno’s enormous if uneven program. This isn’t to discredit Perry’s film. With a tell-don’t-show vibe, Listen Up Philip is a deliberately smart-alecky account of an obnoxious Manhattanite (played by Jason Schwartzman), whose life belatedly unravels when those closest to him understandably grow bored of his self-absorption. Plenty of cackles pervaded the press screening early on, but by the film’s end, Philip’s own destructive pretentiousness ought to repel anyone sensitive to other people’s happiness.
Perry’s third feature—following Impolex (2009) and The Color Wheel (2011)—could have carried a subheading: The Fool, which is the actual English title of Durak, Yury Bykov’s claustrophobically cautionary comedy about a plumber trying to save a nine-storey apartment block from collapse in contemporary Russia. Played by Artem Bystrov—who was handed the festival’s Best Actor prize—the film’s protagonist is as Sisyphean an everyman as any in today’s cinema, compromising his own ambitions and domestic harmony in order to prioritize the lives of others. His trouble is twofold: first he needs to convince local politicians of the problem, and then the poverty-stricken inhabitants of the seemingly doomed tower block in question. As our lowly hero discovers, one set of characters is bad enough, but those they’ve systematically failed could be even more beyond repair.
From the long-yet-minimal to the short-yet-dense, Locarno has it all. Among the other winners this year was Abandoned Goods, a thirty-seven-minute film by Pia Borg and Ed Lawrenson. Winner of the Pardo di domani international competition, Abandoned Goods is a film all about art-making as a human instinct as well as a form of therapy, of reparation and of socialization. Between 1946 and 1981, it tells us, long-stay patients of Netherne Hospital—a psychiatric and mental health facility in Surrey, England—created artworks under the guidance of pioneering art therapist Edward Adamson. Some of the paintings and sculptures are remarkable.
Borg and Lawrenson assemble what they can of the 5,500 works that survived the hospital’s closure in 1993, and do so to eerie and enlightening effect. Layering Iain Sinclair’s narration and old audio recordings atop a mix of archival footage and new stills, Abandoned Goods isn’t quite maximalist: rather, it’s a deceptively concentrated film—and one that’s as much about renewing and re-contextualizing the creations therein as it is about art’s psychological, emotional and finally social consequence. It leaves those pampered juggernauts in the dust.