Founded in 1946, the Festival del Film Locarno is one of the longest-running film festivals in the world, though by no means among the most recognized. Only in the last two years, under the aegis of Artistic Director Olivier Père, has this showcase set in a cozy Italianate lakeside resort town pushed more forcefully into the global arena, like the cavorting leopard that serves as its mascot. The hilly città vecchia‘s 8,000-seat space in its cobblestone piazza affords Europe its first taste of the requisite big Hollywood hamwiches; think Super 8, Cowboys & Aliens, and Friends With Benefits. Then there’s more palatable fare fresh out of Cannes, like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre. And there are even visits from the cinematic royalty of Europe, Hollywood, and elsewhere, with Leslie Caron and Harrison Ford, helicoptering across the lake from nearby Lugano to receive awards for their life achievements. You may even catch roguish director Abel Ferrara commandeering a local cantina to play an impromptu set of bluesy guitar music.
Through this eclectic melee several films stood out, and first amongst these was the festival’s big prizewinner, Milagros Mumenthaler’s Abrir puertas y ventanas (soon to make the festival rounds under the slightly wrong-headed title, Back to Stay), an Argentine-Swiss first feature that earned both the festival’s top prize, the Pardo d’or (Golden Leopard), and its Best Actress award. Maria Canale plays the de facto ringleader of a trio of orphaned sisters holed up in their recently deceased grandmother’s house, lounging in their underwear, avoiding university classes, watching the soaps, and bitching at each other. Confining the film’s action to the decaying interiors and fenced-in yard of the family’s Buenos Aires house, Mumenthaler deftly builds an atmosphere of secrecy and recrimination, with unspoken thoughts squirreled behind locked doors, in crammed closets, and underneath yellowing wallpaper. It’s a remarkably assured first feature, funny and mysterious in equal measure, and a very worthy award-winner.
Similar spatial confines marked a few other films at the festival, most notably Adrian Sitaru’s Best Intentions, the latest excellent (and stylistically consistent) film to emerge from Romania. Sitaru’s film won him the Best Director award, and will likely earn comparisons to the 2005 Romanian landmark The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which also orbits around that country’s questionable health-care system. But Best Intentions is the more intimate work, following its characters between a small number of domestic spaces and hospital rooms with slightly baffling POV shots and scenes that persistently rework (and test) their relationships. Bogdan Dumitrache took the festival’s Best Actor award for his portrayal of Alex, a worrywart sent into neurotic OCD overdrive when his mother suffers a minor stroke. Fearing the worst, Alex tries to take charge of his mother’s care, negotiating others’ takes on the film’s title while offering a few of his own. As with many of the films coming out of Romania these days, each scene piles on detail and reevaluates the film’s themes and characters to an almost maddening extent before delivering its witty and unexpectedly disarming final blow.
Taking another kind of limited viewpoint, Valérie Massadian’s widely heralded Nana peers into the world of an adorable four-year-old French farmgirl for a mere sixty-eight minutes, but this was enough to earn its director the award for Best First Feature. With its subject matter, scant running-time, and the ill-chosen Comic Sans font for its credits, you might think this is a kid’s film, but Massadian soon disabuses you with a first scene of brutal pig slaughter and piglet-tagging. Veering almost imperceptibly from a tender, bucolic idyll to a wild and nasty fairy tale, the film becomes still more enigmatic when little Nana is apparently left to her own devices to frolic with a dead rabbit, try out swear-words, tend the blazing hearth, and read bedtime stories–to herself. Massadian’s patient direction makes what at first seems a small film into something deeply suggestive and even spellbinding.
Less could be said for another French film about the bloom of youth: Mia Hansen-Løve’s hotly anticipated follow-up to her Cannes award-winning debut The Father of My Children, Un amour de jeunesse screened here under the rather blah (and spoiler-filled!) international title, Goodbye First Love. Pretty but rather bony, Hansen-Løve’s disappointing film, about a young Parisienne letting go of her youth, is naïve to a point that must be intentional but is in any case irritating, with fine actors playing one-note characters and metaphors that are head-slappingly obvious. (Not so obvious, it appears, to the Locarno jury: they awarded it a Special Mention.)
Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Perceval’s far more substantial, if no less preposterous Low Life also hit on the French youth jag. A quasi-supernatural mood-piece, slate-gray and utterly pretentious, it’s held together with great hair and a woozy witch-house soundtrack of slurred, reverby vocals and dragging beats. The dialogue is outlandish, but the hot young actors, drugging and screwing and occasionally helping out undocumented immigrants from les banlieues, make the film at very least watchable, if not quite pertinent.
But by far the best thing the festival had to offer was Dreileben, a triptych of features about small-town crime and punishment by “Berlin school” filmmakers Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, and Christoph Hochhäusler that initiated after a 2006 correspondence about genre and German cinema in Hochhäusler’s celebrated film magazine Revolver. (This must-read exchange was translated to English by Christoph Terhechte for the Berlinale, where the films premiered; you can read it here. Centered on the same sets of events — a murder, a manhunt, and a lot of buried history — the three films form a kind of East German Twin Peaks, and while each is a ninety-minute feature encompassing a wide range of styles and tones (slasher film, droll satire, hallucinatory psychodrama), there’s hardly a wasted shot in the nearly five-hour running time.
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Many of these offerings — and other notable films, including Policeman from Israel and The Student from Argentina — will soon be seeding other festivals in Toronto and New York. But Locarno’s curious combination of pleasures give it a flavor all its own.
Leo Goldsmith is editor of Not Coming to a Theater Near You and co-editor of film for The Brooklyn Rail. He has also written for Reverse Shot, indieWire, Moving Image Source, and The Village Voice. He has a band called Christian Science Minotaur.