In the fierce arena fight of film festivals, Locarno might have gone one battle too far this year when it invited Roman Polanski for a lifetime achievement award, with its requisite appearance at the festival’s marquee Piazza Grande as well as a masterclass in its large “Sala” venue. This Polanski plan caused considerable controversy locally, so much so that Polanski deemed it better to cancel than risk raising more ire. The cancellation was a stark reminder of how festivals have to balance various, even openly conflicting constituencies, including the local ones. While the cineastes converging on the small town likely looked forward to hearing the aging but still amazingly active auteur (yours truly included), locals probably did not want to underline Switzerland’s dubious habit of looking the other way, a tradition it has recently been working hard to contravene.

It is really too bad that the Polanski controversy dominated the headlines during this year’s Locarno festival, as the competition line-up was the strongest it has been in years. On the penultimate day of the festival, for illustrative instance, the festival’s daily publication (Pardo Live) polled some 22 critics from around the world, and these 22 named, as best of the fest, ten different films from the 17-film competition, highlighting (besides the contrariness of critics) the depth of this year’s competition. In only the second year of his artistic directorship, Carlos Chatrian oversaw this fascinatingly diverse and convincing line-up. Whether this had to do with the previous artistic director, Olivier Père (2009-12, now head of Arte France Cinema), or Chatrian himself – or perhaps with the Head of Programming Mark Peranson, whom Père brought in – only (annualised) time will tell, but indicators are certainly good. With a Leopard of Honor for Agnès Varda, the Polanski controversy, a “Vision” (science) award for the inventor of the Steadicam (and camera operator on The Shining) Garrett Brown, career honours for Juliette Binoche, Mia Farrow, Giancarlo Giannini as well as launching the breathtakingly broad Titanus retrospective that will now tour globally – it was a remarkably rich edition of the festival, anchored by that impressively diverse and deep line-up in the competition.

In terms of the competition awards winners, a well-deserved Golden Leopard (Pardo d’ore) went to Lav Diaz’s From What Is Before (Mula sa kung ano ang noon), a visually stunning, emotionally arresting, politically pointed five-hour-and-forty-minute exploration of rural life and its decline in early 1970s Philippines. It was in those years that the US-backed Ferdinand Marcos regime made itself felt in new and dangerous ways, even in its smallest barrios, a permeating politicisation that soon yielded martial law and near dictatorial powers for Marcos. As its poetic title and epic length indicate, the film carefully tracks the transformation of the village, detailing the dwindling community before, during, and then after the changes brought by the evolving political (and above all military) climate of the country. These subterranean but tectonic changes are tracked primarily through a family clustered around the ranch-hand and farmer Sito (Perry Dizon), a father and father-figure to many in the village, including the inscrutable boy Hakob (Reynan Abcede), daughter Tinang (Dea Formacil) and her family, Itang (Hazel Orencio) and her mentally ill sister Joselina (Karenina Haniel); other key figures in this small-town ensemble include a village priest, a school teacher as well as principal, and an ultimately venal wine- and spirits-maker. Although the film highlights a modestly sized place, it is in no way simple – as small-town life is too often depicted – either in its social, psychological, and spiritual dynamism or in the comings and goings of people from the very first hour. The barrio might have a small population, but it is not Manicheanly reducible to insiders or outsiders. Such complexity yields one of the most memorable depictions of a secret agent (of military intelligence) I can recall.

From What Is Before

From What Is Before

Although its length was often remarked upon, the film’s commitment to outsized duration seems justified by its admirable ambition. In one telling moment late in the film, the barrio priest reproaches a Marcos military commander, recently arrived to warn about (alleged) secret, subversive elements: “I have stayed here for many years, and you’ve stayed for only weeks, what could you have seen that I couldn’t see?” From What is Before proves powerful because of the visual strategy implied in the priest’s words, that substantive seeing and understanding require temporal commitment. For most of the film, in lush, minutely detailed black and white, Diaz offers painterly composition of broad landscape, dense forest, or baroque coastline into which the characters slowly emerge, rendering nature in the village and for the villagers not so much a backdrop but a co-inhabitant and collaborator. The deliberateness with which such compositions and then character manipulation is developed proves invaluable to tracking the political and social transformations later in the film, which, viewers realise, do not merely change the social hierarchies of the village, but also these characters’ fundamental way of being in the world. These later transformations, however, are, to Diaz’s credit, no simple Edenic fall from antediluvian purity. While the film highlights the beauty of the landscape, vegetation, and coast – and the spirituality they evoke – it is careful not to overromanticise the barrio or its inhabitants. Many of its characters do each other wrong long before the military arrives, wrong-doing that causes resonant, almost mythological consequences when a film is this contemplative.

Memory, politics and the ghosts that they conjure are also at stake in Pedro Costa’s Horse Money (Cavalo Dinheiro), which took the director award at the festival. In a parallel, if not similar, way to From What is Before, Horse Money registers the seismic political shifts and aftershocks of the 1970s by focusing very precisely and resonantly on a single place, the downtrodden, now demolished Lisbon district of Fontainhas, which has figured centrally in much of Costa’s work and is hauntingly evoked here again. Delivered by a small number of non-professional actors but in a defiantly anti-realist mode, the stylised dialogue and stagey gestures recount the time of Portugal’s 1974 “Carnation Revolution,” which overthrew the Estado Novo regime and yielded rapid retreat from many of its colonies. The Carnation Revolution brought more immigrants from various corners of Portugal’s previous dominion, including from Cabo (Cape) Verde, whence hail Horse’s central characters. At the centre/core of Horse’s subsequently dispersive plot is Ventura, a retired construction worker whose body is wracked by the markers of both age and violence (thinning white hair, splotchy head scars, continuously tremoring hands). Despite his conspicuous age, Ventura (played by Ventura, who has appeared in several Costa films also playing himself) emphasises at one point that he is nineteen, a claim foregrounding the dissociative plot that becomes unstuck in conventional narrative time. The images and dialogue (if not Ventura’s body) move back and forth from the 1970s to Ventura’s later retirement and indefinite stay in a decrepit hospital, whose long corridors and lonely rooms recall at once Kafka and Edward Hopper. Unlike From What Is Before, Horse is shot in, at times extremely, vibrant HD colours, but it is also highly controlled in terms of haunting shadow and concealment. Such horror devices are invoked but then provocatively undercut by the flat delivery of dialogue and piercing lack of music. When, abruptly, the music starts late, it is a lighting bolt in the controlled, stagey universe Costa has created. The elusive plotting, stylised performances, and anti-realist lighting recall a Brechtian aesthetic, something affirmed by citations of proto-horror Weimar cinema, including gothic music over the spindly cast shadow of Ventura’s long fingers as well as a haunting closing image quoting Lang’s M, the violent masterpiece from another politically transitional period, bidding farewell to one world while hesitantly taking scared and scary steps into another. 

Horse Money

Horse Money

Horse Money won Costa what is traditionally regarded as the festival’s third-place prize, while a surprise second-place Leopard went to Alex Ross Perry’s disagreeable comedy Listen Up, Philip — disagreeable not in its success (it works quite well), but in its protagonist, the detached, anxiety-ridden, pathologically narcissistic writer Philip Friedman (Jason Schwartzman). Philip, although “enjoying” some success with his work, seems committed to undercutting most of the relationships in his life. Paramount among them was that with his live-in photographer girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss), whose success he envies and whom he summarily abandons for a foray to the upstate rural retreat of a Philip-Roth-evoking Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). Although clearly reminiscent of Baumbach’s Greenberg in the unlikeability of its narcissistic protagonist as well as of Anderson’s Rushmore’s young-old friendship (and probably Baumbach’s Frances Ha in a fateful trek to an upstate college), the film is well written, well acted, and on the whole entertaining, a guilty pleasure for the American-indie and/or Brooklyn set. Zimmerman might be the film’s most intriguingly character, an aging writer fighting the creeping irrelevancy he senses, resisting becoming a mere ghost of his former famous self. Finally, to his considerable credit, director-writer Alex Ross Perry did, at both his pre-screening introduction and then at the closing-night awards, vocally lament the lost chance to hear from one of his cinematic heroes, Polanski, at the festival.

Listen Up, Philip

Listen Up, Philip

Although avoiding the (overt) political key of many of the competition films, Listen Up, Philip did exemplify another trend in this year’s films, that of tense, even extreme generational relations – probably not a surprise for a continent still very much struggling with its future, financial and otherwise. Two films, one from Greece and one from Italy, radicalised such generational tensions to their sombre breaking point. Neither film held together entirely as a complete work, but both were fascinating for what they did seem to signal about this stuttering moment in European history – both of their protagonists are at a loss for how to move forward in their lives, particularly economically. Both films go out of their way to show how quickly, and disconcertingly, the older generations can become ghostly burden under extreme economic conditions for the young, themselves fighting socio-economic irrelevance. In A Blast, the impressive second feature from Syllas Tzoumerkas, a young mother of three, Maria (Angeliki Papoulia, also in Dogtooth), discovers that her own mother, the proprietor of a small store that has provided for the entire family, has not paid taxes for years while running up crushing consumer debt – these financial references are further confirmed by background TV din on bankruptcies. With this familial-economic constellation, the film hits an unlikely dramatic climax when viewers learn that Maria’s mother has not talked to an accountant in years. Perhaps to spice this potentially dry, if important, material up, Tzoumerkas intersperses many explicit sex scenes, straight and gay, as if to suggest that Maria’s and her husband’s sensual indulgences were partially to blame for their lousy career- and business sense.

A Blast

A Blast

If Blast’s most telling gestus of generational reversal was Maria’s yanking her mother out of her wheelchair to spank her, Bonifacio Angius’s Perfidia similarly foregrounds an aging, detached parent and hapless adult child. Angelo (Stefano Deffenu) is 35, but his father Peppino (Mario Olivieri), as viewers learn after the death of Angelo’s mother, is not even sure how old he is (the father self-servingly underestimates by five years). Angelo has no plan for work and apparently no relationships beyond a couple of underemployed bar buddies, even as he enviously watches/borderline stalks a more successful friend who is married, with slicker hair, a son, and a new BMW. Peppino decides he needs to help his directionless son, but Angelo is morosely unreceptive and begins to see his father as a burden after the latter falls abruptly ill. In fact, Angelo shows more initiative in plotting to rid himself of his father than in anything else in his doldrums life. If A Blast fractures generational legacy sometimes histrionically – Maria even dumps her own children in an effort to relaunch herself shorn of all familial baggage – Angelo’s dawning awareness is subdued and underplayed, an understandable response when the only real Peppino’s paternalistic legacy offers is: “life is one big swindle, and the key is to be inside the swindle.”

Perfidia

Perfidia

Argentinian director Martin Rejtman’s Two Shots Fired (Dos Disparos) also explores revealing generational tensions in a financial-crisis ridden country, but in a comically subdued manner. Rejtman was a key early figure of the New Argentinian Cinema, and Two Shots signals a convincing return to deadpan form after a ten-year hiatus from features. For most of its first hour, Two Shots follows the low-affect fallout of teenager Mariano’s abrupt attempt at suicide in the film’s first five minutes. After a solo night out of dancing and a morning of solitary swimming and lawn mowing – the weekend agenda of the lonely upper middle-class – Mariano (Rafael Federman) finds a long-lost handgun in the shed and abruptly shoots himself twice, once in the head and once in the stomach, the apparently eponymous two shots. The lives and affect of Mariano and his family are, however, so flat, even willfully oblivious, that this suicide attempt hardly registers, let alone ruffles them. There are some practical details to be dealt with, supervised by his detached attorney mother, like finding the second bullet somewhere inside him (it disrupts his recorder-flute playing with an untraceable, harmonised polyphony) or monitoring his medication (the relevant timer is rapidly refunctioned for measured sunbathing). Otherwise, near nothing changes – the family seems more concerned by its errant dog than near-death son. Ultimately, and tellingly, Dos Disparos slyly slips from the rudderless drift of late adolescence/early adulthood to a similarly aimless meandering of the older, especially 1960s generation whose nonchalant parenting spawned this inscrutable young generation.

Two Shots Fired

Two Shots Fired

This competition’s acting awards went to a duo of other strong films foregrounding self-possessed, even loner protagonists at intriguing odds with meticulously drawn contexts. The female actor award went to Ariane Labed (from the memorable Attenberg) for her work in Fidelio, the Odyssey of Alice, the intriguing feature debut directed by Lucie Borleteau, who collaborated on the screenplay for Claire Denis’ White Material. Fidelio, Odyssey puts at its heart a compelling reversal: that it is a woman who sails the high seas, with a guy in every port, or at least in every cabin. Thirty-ish Alice (Labed) becomes a mechanic and then engineer on the aging and increasingly dangerous Fidelio after the somewhat mysterious death of her middle-aged predecessor, whose cabin she takes and diary she finds. The psychological travails and romantic challenges of long-distance travel that her male predecessor details serve as convenient voice-over to Alice’s own struggles with being the only woman on the ship. If the love-triangle quickly formed (a boyfriend back home vs. a long-ago but resumed affair with a man who is now her captain [Melvil Poupaud]) is somewhat familiar – the film tongue-in cheek restages Titanic’s Kate-Winslet wind-embrace – more interesting is the film’s mélange of anthropology of the ship (its hierarchies, rituals, ethnic diversity, all servicing globalised commerce) with art-cinema’s traditional, though here unexpected, invocations of other arts. Alice’s landlubber boyfriend, graphic artist Felix (Anders Danielsen Lie), sends her intricate drawings invoking conventional naked female forms on the seafaring ship (on the bow, near the monsters) while destabilising those misogynist-aquatic traditions – much as this smart film does.

Fidelio, the Odyssey of Alice

Fidelio, the Odyssey of Alice

The best actor award went to Artem Bystrov for a deserving film that many had tipped for one of the top prizes, The Fool (Durak). This third feature by Yuri Bykov carefully tracks corruption in the Russians hinterlands through an honest plumber butting (thick) heads with small-town bureaucrats. The futility of Dima’s labours are foreshadowed early on by his own father’s Sisyphean task of repairing a beaten-up bench outside their housing project – each night unruly teens (more generational tenuousness in contemporary society) destroy it, each day he fixes it. Dima has inherited this obstinate commitment to a perceived (architectural) good, but he pulls not only his family, but the whole town after him in his virtuous tenacity. As a city employee, he answers a first-act call about a pipe burst to discover a crack running the entire height of an aging nine-story residential building. Shot in highly symbolic and even surrealist ways, the crack signifies not only the corruption rampant in the town, but also the fractious fissures in Russia more generally. Town officials had squandered monies allocated for building renovations on their conspicuously fine clothes and German cars: they had merely slapped on paint when foundational work on the building (and on the society) was clearly called for. It is a festive party of such profligate officials that Dima has to interrupt to inform them that the building is in danger of collapsing and killing many of the 800+ residents. Although the film could probably dispense with some of its early scenes of Dima dashing around as well as some of the overplayed histrionics of its belatedly confessional bureaucrats, The Fool is an admirable addition to the “one long night” genre (Before Sunrise, Night on Earth, After Hours) – here one night not only of individual uncertainty and futility, but also political corruption and social venality.

The Fool

The Fool

One of the talks of the festival, Matías Piñiero’s La Princesa de Francia (The Princess of France) opens with two audio-visual tricks that serve as inspired allegories for the unfolding film: first, in Italian (rather than the film’s predominant Spanish), viewers hear a voice-over over black discuss a work of Schumann, particularly when and under what conditions it was created; second, as Schumann’s music floats out over a slow, nighttime tracking shot of the city, the camera alights on a high angle of a brightly-lit soccer game, whence viewers can appreciate the burgeoning geometry of ball-passing precision. But the presumed sporting clarity of one side confronting another is shifting radically, as one of the two teams disappears by converting colours, leaving only a lonely goalkeeper in orange. The clever visual trick emphasises how anybody can end up isolated in the shifting sands of social reversal, also highlighted in the film’s repeated reference to William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s academic painting Nymphs and Satyr (1873). In that painting, four bathing nymphs tug at a peeping satyr as he begins to realise that he is not as in control as perhaps he thought (and fantasised), a realisation reterritorialised in Piñiero’s plot as Victor (Julián Larquier Tellarini), a theatre and radio-play director who has to navigate a circle, eventually vortex, of lovers. Despite this seemingly soap-opera plot – at times, it seems an Argentinian and high-art Girls, with attractive hipsters’ hand-wringing over underemployed paramours – the film also manages to self-reflexively investigate how confused viewers can become with a large cast of personae and how controlled narrative has to operate in distinguishing and manipulating characters. This intriguing relation of narrative to both character and desire is evoked not only by the soccer game and the Bourguereau painting, but also by Victor’s radio production of Shakespeare’s (likewise linguistically dense) Love’s Labor Lost, about the oscillating caprice of the human heart in affixing desire to new objects as one does a pass for the sprinting teammate.

The Princess of France

The Princess of France

Nymphs and Satyr

Nymphs and Satyr

If Princess of France deploys music, theatre and radio to explore film narrative, Eugène Green’s La Sapienzarelates cinema to another art, that of architecture: the film extends, in novel fashion, the genre of world-weary architect going to bella Italia in search of inspiration and self (Don’t Look Now, Belly of an Architect, To Rome with Love). When French-Swiss Alexandre Schmidt (Dardennes regular Fabrizio Rongione) grows increasingly frustrated in realising his idealist (often eco-minded) designs, he decides to return to points south to finish a long-neglected book on the Baroque architect Francesco Borrimini. A propos Don’t Look Now, Alexandre and his wife Aliénor (Christelle Prot) have lost a young daughter, a loss that conspicuously weighs on their now numb marriage. Green’s elusive title simultaneously refers to one of Borromini’s Roman churches (Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza), but also to the director’s theatre troupe (Theatre de la sapience) that reintroduced baroque theatre and its more formal declamation style, something approximated in the dialogue delivery throughout the film. The couple’s travels south land them close to Locarno, first on neighbouring Lake Lugano where Borrimini was born, and then to Stresa, a beautiful city on the Italian side of the large lake on which Locarno itself sits. There the couple meets a late teen brother and sister, Geoffredo (Ludovico Succio) and Lavinia (Arianna Nastro), to whom the ennui-ridden married couple take an almost weird liking. While Aliénor remains in Stresa to help nurse the sickly Lavinia, Alexandre takes Geoffredo to Rome on an architectural study trip, which fills the screen with buildings like Borromini’s astonishing Sant’Agnese in Agon on the Piazza Navona and his oval staircase at the Piazza Barberini. With its lengthy voice-over on Borrimini versus his better known nemesis Bernini, the film recalls the Locarno 2012-premiering Museum Hours – though the latter might be more effective, Sapienza also examines the role of artistic tradition and its philosophies in modern life.

Sapienza

Sapienza

Among the most noteworthy offerings at the festival’s more mainstream Piazza Grande section was Dancing Arabs (a more sensible title in French: Le deuxième fils), which traces a complex coming-of-age story of an Arab boy, Eyad, growing up in Israel. Having had a couple of works in the Piazza section in past years, including a recent audience award winner (Human Resources Manager, 2010), director Eran Riklis referred to the film’s Locarno screening as its de facto international premiere because its slated opening at the Jerusalem Film Festival had to be postponed and then restricted due to security concerns. The film makes quickly clear that Eyad is extraordinarily talented at math (he embarrasses a local store owner by effortlessly calculating the latter’s astronomical profit margins), and soon, as he begins high school, he is packed off to an elite Israeli boarding school, where he feels utterly out of place but also rapidly in love with Jewish Naomi. Predictably, Naomi’s parents and many of her schoolmates do not approve of their romance, though one of Eyad’s few friends, a Jewish teenager Yonatan, is supportive in his caustic way. Suffering from MS and losing control of his body, Yonatan has other challenges on his mind. Although, with its assorted (German, etc.) coproducers, the film risks the familiar Euro-pudding affliction – Eyad has an urbs-ex-machina flight to Berlin near the end – the film is both funny and ultimately surprisingly moving.

Dancing Arabs

Dancing Arabs

Another uncommonly sad, sensitive, and accomplished coming-of-age film at the festival, one directed by the former Golden Leopard winner Andrea Staka, is Cure – The Life of Another, which concerns the psycho-social consequences of war in the former Yugoslavia. Set in the mid-1990s, early-teen Linda (Sylvie Marinkovic) has spent much of her childhood in Switzerland, but her mother there seems professionally preoccupied, so she has been sent back to her physician father in Dubrovnik, Croatia. As one might expect, she struggles with the language as well as with adjustment to high school, where the other girls are happy to make fun of her relatively privileged, at least more peaceful, upbringing. As she draws close to one girl, Eta (Lucija Radulovic), a brief scuffle ends in a plunge down a cliff and Eta’s death, in which Linda’s role remains unclear. With death early in its plot, the film focuses, intriguingly, on how Linda comes to terms with that what has happened, how both individuals and groups process past violence, loss, and complicity in them. Out of some ambiguous combination of guilt and curiosity, Linda visits Eta’s grieving mother and grandmother, who were already devastated by the wartime death of Eta’s father. The impact of the war proves ubiquitous and fascinates Linda, not least as she starts to flirt with the former, much older boyfriend of Eta, who narrates episodes of the war she missed. As in Fidelio, a diary left by the dead has implications for the present, and Linda starts to see the ghost of Eta, both guiding and threatening her, yet another reminder at this year’s festival of a past that refuses to rest easy (or even to remain the past).

Cure – The Life of Another

Cure – The Life of Another

Locarno Film Festival
6-16 August 2014
Festival website: http://www.pardolive.ch

About The Author

Jaimey Fisher is Associate Professor of German and Cinema and Technocultural Studies at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of Christian Petzold (University of Illinois Press, 2013) and Disciplining German: Youth, Reeducation, and Reconstruction after the Second World War (Wayne State Press, 2007), and editor of a range of anthologies on German cinema. His current book-project analyses war films in Germany from 1914-1961.