Viewing films in the Piazza Grande at the 61st Locarno International Film Festival

6-16 August 2008

I was recently reflecting on last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), while visiting the Locarno International Film Festival in southern Switzerland. With the festivals running almost concurrently, my mind flipped hemispheres as I remembered dashing across Flinders Street between The Forum and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, dodging an (unlikely) shower, lights reflecting on the wet road, rugged up in winter woollies, drinking in all the excitement of MIFF.

This year MIFF celebrated its 57th year while Locarno its 61st which earn them both places as grandes dames amongst some of the oldest international film festivals in the world. It seems today that every major city in the world hosts at least one annual film festival, some specifically targeting particular genres or audiences such as Calgary’s $100 film festival, Philadelphia’s Terror Film Festival and Wellington’s Incredibly Strange Film Festival.

A Polyglot’s Paradise

In contrast to Melbourne’s winter festival, the Locarno International Film Festival is held in the height of summer on the sunny shores of Lago Maggiore. The Festival’s location in the southern Swiss canton of Ticino reflects both the melting pot of local cultures but also the challenges of organising a festival in a country that straddles four official languages. The logistics, time and expense of organising translators, subtitling, multi-screenings, language head-sets, multi-language film guides and press is truly wahnsinnig, impressionante, stupéfiant, amazing (and whatever the word is in Romantsch), not to forget the constant competition with the clangorous church bells and thunderous nightly storms.

One of the most refreshing experiences of visiting Locarno was the total embracing of tourism by hospitality and tourism operators. There is certainly no apparent resentment of tourists that is rife in the central Victorian tourist town from where I hail. Each streetside risotto and late night vino was served with friendliness and familiarity as if greeting an old friend returning after a prolonged absence. The good nature of the locals is certainly synonymous with the relaxed and serendipitous atmosphere of this beautiful corner of the world.

The first Locarno International Film Festival, held in 1946, featured 15 films. This year’s festival boasted over 400 films from over 50 countries, including 203 feature films, 78 premieres, which were experienced by more than 180,000 people.

It seems that every festival’s committee likes to claim its festival’s point of difference and Locarno certainly deserves its title of “the most beautiful open air cinema lounge.” The Festival prides itself in being a non-standardised, open-format festival, aimed at experimentation, eclecticism and a passion for auteur, arthouse cinema, incorporating both the work of well-established as well as new young filmmakers. It attracts a discerning audience seeking a rich and rewarding cultural experience, free of glamour and glitter and media hype.

Grande Pizza on the Piazza Grande

Viewing films in the Piazza Grande at the 61st Locarno International Film Festival

There is no red carpet at the Locarno Film Festival, just the sun-warmed cobbles of the Festival’s major venue, the big screen (26 x 14 metres) on the Piazza Grande in the town’s centre. The thrill and enchantment of viewing films under the stars on a balmy evening, pizza balanced on one’s lap, doesn’t appear to have faded any since the first outdoor cinemas. Each evening the atmosphere of the Piazza Grande buzzed with viewer anticipation and the flickering horizon of mountains sporadically illuminated by distant thunderstorms. The surrounding buildings with their Lombardic arcades dating back to the Renaissance, were lit splendidly with coloured lights, enhancing the Festival’s reputation as having one of the most atmospheric outdoor cinemas in the world. Along with the opportunity to hear directors recount their experiences and interact in open forums, there is something truly magical about watching films on the Piazza Grande with 8000 other viewers.

This year’s Piazza Grande program featured an assortment of accessible crowd pleasers including Tunisien Karim Dridi’s gypsy-kid drama Khamsa; German Philipp Stölz’s mountaineering documentary-drama, North Face; the Swiss comedy romance, Marcello Marcello and Julian Jarrold’s, Brideshead Revisited.

The Festival program is organised around established sections which include the International Competition, for feature length movies from around the world; Cineasti del presente, for fictional and documentary films relating to reality observed from a national perspective; the Retrospettiva, which this year paid tribute to Italian director, Nanni Moretti; and the Pardi di domani category for short films.

The films of this year’s program focussed largely on social and political themes. Festival Director Frédéric Maire commented that, “Often this is shown through the smallest common denominator, the family, or what is left of it – separated parents, prodigal children and marginalised people in a collapsing society.”

The Highlights

Black Sea

Among the highlights was Mar Nero (Black Sea), directed by Italian director Federico Bondi, which portrays the story of a truculent Italian widow and her young Romanian carer. It explores their initial clashes of generations and nationalities, which gradually and gently give way to solidarity, understanding and friendship.

Bondi and co-writer, Ugo Chiti, explore the challenges for migrants from countries new to the European Union with cognizance and sensitivity. The film won acclaimed Italian star, Ilaria Occhini the best actress award in the International Competition Jury and the film also won over the Ecumencial Jury as well as the Youth Jury.

Other standout films included the haunting and captivating, Yuriev Den (Yuri’s Day), which tells the story of Russian opera diva, Liubov (Ksenia Rappaport), who returns to her hometown of Youriev-Polskii, during which time her son mysteriously disappears. Director, Kirill Serebrennikov won the Youth Jury prize. Ben Hopkins’ The Market – A Tale of Trade, for which lead actor, Tayanç Ayaydin, won the Leopard Prize, is an insightful tale of a Turkish entrepreneur and his journey into the greedy and morally corrupt world of the black market. Director-writer, Lance Daly’s film, Kisses, is a compelling story of two young unknown lead actors, attempting to survive their dysfunctional households and their subsequent escape to inner city Dublin in search of salvation.

Short Stuff

Of particular interest this year were the films in the short film category. The 2002 Festival focused on Australian and New Zealand short films, but it seems that all has been pretty quiet from Downunder since. Of the more than 400 films screened this year, there were only two Australian films, The Eternity Man (feature length, written and directed by Julien Temple) and the short film, Directions (written and directed by Kasimir Burgess). Burgess’s film was one of 23 films from 20 countries competing in the Leopards of Tomorrow competition.

Directions

Directions was certainly a welcome and delightfully humorous relief amongst an anthology of pretty heavy going films entrenched in themes of loss, hardship, abuse, violence, genocide, incest, tragedy and general social breakdown. As with musical or short story compilations, film anthologies are often challenging to sit through as there is often not enough time to digest and reflect on one film before being flung into the next, especially with such hard-hitting themes. Hence, Directions provided a sunny and comic escape from heavy dark old Europe with an experience that every Aussie can relate to: the darned bung shopping trolley wheel (whereas in Switzerland one gets the impression that every wheel on every trolley is regularly tested, lubricated and maintained so as to ensure faultless functioning). The central character, played by Gregory Muller, embarks on a journey with his laden shopping trolley after his mother fails to collect him from the supermarket. During his journey, which takes him throughout suburban Melbourne, under the Westgate Bridge, careering down a dirt road on the rural fringe and ultimately to an aquatic end, Muller conducts various ingenious repairs until his trolley rides perfectly.

Another highlight, also providing some welcome relief, and another familiar experience that so many can relate to, was the charming short film, Fata Galbena Care Rade (The Yellow Smiley Face) from Romania (directed by Constantin Popescu). The film portrays an ageing couple’s challenges with computing and the internet, as a means of keeping contact with their recently departed son. The language of computers slowly dawns as they cautiously attempt to follow their son’s mysterious instructions before his face magically appears before them on the screen.

The 61st Locarno International Film Festival once again succeeded in offering audiences both an intimate and unique cinematic experience. The summer rains on the closing days failed to dampen the spirits of the film-goers who simply donned colourful umbrellas and dodged showers to fill venues until the last screening. 2009 will be Frédéric Maire’s final Festival before he departs to direct the Cinémathèque Suisse. In 2010, Olivier Père, Head of the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight, will step in to take the reigns. Through his association with the American and European film industries, Père is expected to bring the festival greater international exposure and recognition. “I’ll keep discovering and shedding light on emerging talents from all over the world”, said Père.

Locarno International Film Festival website: http://www.pardo.ch/jahia/Jahia/home/lang/en