This year’s edition of the Locarno Film Festival, the 72nd, welcomed a new artistic director, Lili Hinstin, after the departure last year of Carlo Chatrian to (co-) head up the Berlin festival. Hintsin’s arrival was an encouraging development on the world festival network, as she is one of the very few (only the second at Locarno) female artistic directors of a major festival in cinema’s checkered history of gender politics. Hinstin, predictably, had immediately to answer questions about the gender parity in this year’s festival and especially in its competition, not least due to this year’s controversy surrounding Venice’s competition, announced shortly before Locarno began.1 Although she quickly, in the spirit of artistic freedom, rejected applying any quotas, she could promptly recount that there were six female directors among the 19 films in Locarno’s 2019 competition, with six more among the 14 premieres of the more popularly-minded Piazza Grande section, which contributed, she observed, to a total of 35% female-director representation among the festival’s (contemporary) feature films – and that on a roughly 20% female submission rate among feature films.2 As Thierry Frémaux of Cannes has observed, festivals, even if well intentioned on this parity front, still suffer under the disproportionate number of films that industry and educational pipelines make available for selection.3 Despite these impressive numbers immediately marshaled, Hinstin also distanced herself from consciously applying such criteria, observing it was more her male programmers who seemed to factor in, positively, gender diversity.

Notwithstanding this development and discussion around it, it will take a couple of years to develop a sense of the new directions in which Hinstin will take the festival, but this year’s competition nonetheless proved gratifying, even if the competition films in general tended to be overshadowed by mild groaning about the winner of this year’s Pardo d’oro, Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela. There has been criticism from some corners of Costa’s main winner as too esoteric and, therefore, as a somewhat stale affirmation of (high) art cinema. For instance, on the basis of Costa’s winner, the well-known German writer Rüdiger Suchsland (at his site Artechock) offered cutting criticism of the insiders game art cinema threatens to become with this kind of “mandarin” winner.4 But Locarno has consistently rewarded even difficult auteurist work – cf. Albert Serra’s Story of My Death (2013) or Lav Diaz’s five-hour From What Is Before (2014) – and, indeed, probably the most unflinching auteurist work of its competition left with the most prizes.

Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)

To assess this year’s competition generally, however, it might be more useful to turn to the Locarno films picked up by the fall festival circuit, as the circuit/network character of festivals is, as Thomas Elsaesser and Marijke de Valck have argued, perhaps the key feature of the global phenomenon. Overall, 19 of the Locarno films travelled to the key fall event, the Toronto International Film Festival, but it is noteworthy, I think, that of the four Locarno competition premieres picked up by Toronto – aside from Costa’s Golden-Leopard winner – only one other won any of Locarno’s top prizes, a somewhat perplexing fact that leads one to wonder about this year’s jury selections more than the competition or festival itself. These other three premiering titles from the competition include A Fever, Terminal Sud, and A Girl Missing, all discussed below. As always bears recalling, juried prize winners are invariably the unpredictable products of inaccessible, frequently inscrutable dynamics within the jury. Perhaps Catherine Breillat, this year’s jury president, was distracted by questions about her spat with Asia Argento and her dissing “[her] countrymen” in pre-festival press: she professed love for France and the language spoken there, but not the inhabitants or speakers of that place and language.5 To this viewer’s mind, aside from Costa’s film, all the major winners were a bit of a surprise. Even if one disagrees with a jury’s selections, however, such surprises are a reason to go to the festival – in an age of more and more algorithmically managed attention, a surprise, even shock, and then subsequent debate are not necessarily bad things.

Costa was already a major prize-winner at Locarno, walking away with the best direction prize for his Horse Money (2014). His follow-up Vitalina takes up, in his visually rigorous, even demanding, way, a central but frequently overlooked aspect of migration: the issue of gender, especially gendered abandonment. Vitalina Varela, for whom the film is named and on whose experience it is based, also left with one of the festival’s main prizes, that for acting by a female performer, here in a performance that anchors the complex, elliptical film. Vitalina explores how not only spouses or partners, but whole families are often left behind when would-be workers feel compelled to head abroad. By his own account, Costa developed the script when seeking locations around Portugal for Horse Money: as he was knocking on doors, he came across a frightened women from the former Portuguese colony Cabo Verde – she was at first frightened to answer because she had come in search of her husband, who had left her back in Cabo Verde decades before but who died just before she finally arrived in Portugal. Having landed too late for his funeral, she found herself with few social contacts, a ramshackle house, and dubious legal status – and, perhaps above all, bewilderment at why her husband took so long to bring her and at what trouble he had been up to.

This provocative story forms the basis for one of Costa’s unique envisionings of pointedly pressing social and political issues. Although he works with many unconventional actors – often with postcolonial migrants like those from Cabo Verde – and shoots on locations in line with the neorealist tradition, he dispenses entirely with the other trappings of realism in his highly stylised lighting and blocking schemes. Almost every image is lit with extreme chiaroscuro, with streaks of bright light and intense blacks marking the frame – a street shot and light in this way (and this is a world of many meandering streets) seems as broken (up) as the people wandering them. Such dramatic streaks across the frame conjure a harrowing, Goya-like effect that evokes both extreme emotion and the rough surroundings of his non-conventional actors. The Expressionistic fragmenting of the single image with such chiaroscuro effects also makes high drama of actor movement within the frame, rendering even the simplest, slowest movements extremely suspenseful, if occasionally belaboured. The evocative setting – dark city streets, dilapidated houses, a memorably make-shift church with a priest in a crisis of faith – becomes a noirish labyrinth for these struggling migrants in a most moving way. Costa remains, in his seventh film, the most unapologetically auteurist and artistically ambitious of the competition, and Locarno’s top prize for it affirms the festival’s long-time commitment to such demanding yet rewarding cinema.

The winner of the prize for male performance, Regis Myrupu, plays the lead in another sort of stranger in a strange world of migratory destinations. Director/writer Maya DaRin enjoyed considerable success with her 2010 documentary Lands, which she followed-up in competition in Locarno with this visually, and intellectually, arresting feature debut. A Fever engages its political moment, both in Brazil and around the world, elliptically but most memorably. DaRin’s title describes a mysterious ailment afflicting Justino, played by Myrupu, an indigenous person who left his village in the Brazilian state of Amazonas some 20 years earlier to work in the globally-oriented industries of the regional capital Manaus. Many of the film’s breathtaking visuals pit him and his co-workers against the massive scale of Manaus’s container harbour or follow him through the teeming city streets after work. Justino journeys everyday from that mechanised, metallic harbour to the forested edge of the city where he lives with his daughter, Vanessa, a nurse in a local clinic. Vanessa has been accepted to medical school in Brasilia, with Justino supporting her enrolling even if it will leave him, a widower, alone in the metropolis. Trouble at work, where a coworker casually mentions his racist violence against the indigenous, and the increasingly city-integrated lives of his children make Justino rethink his place in the world that, as the film pointedly underscores, is undercutting biodiversity evermore and everywhere. In following Justino and Vanessa, DaRin openly disdains any exoticising or romanticising of indigenous peoples and highlights instead the complexity of some 80% of such peoples in this region now residing in cities. Given that Brazilian president Bolsonaro – who once praised genocides against indigenous peoples6 – has tolerated massive deforestation and tried to relocate the national foundation protecting indigenous territories (FUNAI) under the industry-massaging Ministry of Agriculture, A Fever is a film of its time, in the best and most memorable sense.

A Fever (Maya DaRin)

Cinema from Korea had a special place at this year’s festival – with Song Kang-ho being honoured with its Excellence Award, and his long-time collaborator/recent Palme-d’or-winner Bong Joon-ho appearing at the public conversation with him to discuss their work together – and the jury prize went to Pa-Go (Height of the Wave), directed by Park Jung-Bum. The motif of a female police chief is not unknown – both the classic film and then excellent prestige-TV series Fargo utilise it to great effect – and Height of the Wave similarly puts Chief Nam at the centre of both a small-town sex scandal and her own domestic chaos. The latter count alone highlights how the film foregoes any absurdist tone: instead of being a long-time anchor of her local community as in Fargo(s), Nam has recently landed far from home, a single mother who has accepted a new position to conceal the dodgy details of her recent divorce, not least from her pre-teen daughter, Sangyi Gho. Sangyi is vocally, and soon violently, unhappy to be relocated to such a small community and to be unclear on when she will see her father again. Compounding Chief Nam’s challenges, as an outsider to the scenic but very small southern South Korean island, she is regarded by the locals with suspicion for reasons that slowly emerge over the course of the film. As a rural population with limited economic opportunity, they are hoping their island will soon benefit from a large infusion of outside investment, a plan threatened if Chief Nam draws attention to them for the wrong reasons. And many of them certainly do have their own criminal pasts to hide. The town secrets centre on the late-teen orphan Yeun-un, both of whose parents drowned in the sea – thus the wave of the film’s title. Yeun-un may or may have not been exploited sexually by a large number of men on the island while others looked away, in a manner reminiscent of the Pitcairn Island scandal. The film ably captures the contradictions of its small-town milieu – the friendliness but also suspicions of a tight-knit community – and exploits its coastline and landscape for a similar cinematic duality of the beautiful but harsh.

Pa-Go (Height of the Wave, Park Jung-Bum)

Winning the best direction prize of the Concorso Internazionale was something of a surprise, a very deliberate film essay about dance that intriguingly traces not only the long-ago origins of a piece but various, and very different, contemporary practitioners who interpret it in their own ways. David Bordwell and Stephen Neale noted art cinema’s propensity for foregrounding other arts back in the 1970s and 1980s, and Les enfants d’Isadora (Isadora’s Children) is a meticulous (maybe overly meticulous) exploration on the creation of a dance performance based on Isadora Duncan’s ground-breaking work in the early twentieth century. Duncan was, of course, the modern dance pioneer who hailed from California (surprising origins not really thematised in this film) but who had her biggest impact around Europe, bringing to dance the kind of modernist revolution sustained in other arts. From her storied career, Isadora’s Children takes up Duncan’s choreographical creation after her two young children drowned in the Seine in a car driven by a nanny in 1913. The film offers in poetic fashion the details of Duncan’s piece in the wake of the drowning, particularly how a parent can begin to express her grief at such a tragedy. But Children focuses even more on how modern dancers – an apparent dance student and then professional and unprofessional dancers – approach the legend’s work. The film is probably most intriguing in its unfolding how important legacies in dance can abide, how contemporary performers think about and enact the histories and memories of their bodily art, and how such art can affect those we might least expect it to impact.

Les enfants d’Isadora (Isadora’s Children, Damien Manivel)

An honourable mention went to an occasionally uneven, but highly intriguing film from Indonesia, Yosep Anggi Noen’s Hiruk-Pikuk Si Al-Kisah (The Science of Fictions) about the impact of genocidal efforts against alleged communist and ethnic Chinese in the 1960s. Although the topic has been addressed by the justly influential films by Joshua Oppenheimer, The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014) – whose double substantive titles Anggi’s film seems to echo – the film nonetheless takes an utterly unexpected, highly creative approach. Amid the anniversaries surrounding the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing – and the surprising number of films dedicated to it, including National Geographic’s Apollo 11 and Damien Chazelle’s First Man The Science of Fiction underscores in fascinating fashion how that pioneering mission might have looked very different from the perspective of the US’s Cold War allies. For such allies, the landing and the universal humanity it suggested could threaten nationalist myths that Indonesians authoritarian leaders were carefully cultivating. In Science of Fictions, a mysterious black-and-white flashback explores how such space exploration might have been utilised by military leaders around the time of the genocide. This would seem to be the “Fiction” of the title, one engineered by leaders with their particular agendas and one unfortunately witnessed by the film’s protagonist, Siman, who is duly punished for seeing what the military never intended civilians to witness. The flashback sequence to the late 1960s gives way to contemporary Indonesia, where Siman still struggles to come to terms with this somewhat mysterious but undeniably traumatic past. He seems to have acquired enough wealth to try to duplicate aspects of what he (apparently) saw right before his trauma, which he reenacts through a replica, ramshackle moon capsule and space-like bodily movements that, predictably, perplex the earthlings around him. The premise of the film is fascinating in exploring grand national narratives and the damage they can do to individual psychologies, and even if it missteps occasionally, the tone of the film is highly unusual, high-humorous and deadly serious at once.

Hiruk-Pikuk Si Al-Kisah (The Science of Fictions, Yosep Anggi Noen)

Another of the strongest films of the competition attended to late adolescence and the struggles of young people to find their way amid socio-economic wreckage. In Basil da Cunha’s O fim do mundo (The End of the World), realist themes of a brutalising urban modernity unfold in intriguingly stylised ways. Unreliable protagonist Spira seems old well beyond his years because he is just returning to his downtrodden Lisbon neighbourhood, Reboleira, after eight years in a juvenile detention centre. What Spira sees there shocks the viewers, even if Michael Spencer’s powerfully low-key performance does not betray much surprise: his generational superiors engage in physical fights out of frustration at their lives, garbage is strewn around the streets for months on end, and the city demolishes houses with shocking disdain for their inhabitants. Spira takes all this in, and this is perhaps why that time of life is so cinematically useful: it allows viewers to empathise with someone who has not made this world, who looks at it with de-agentised if not entirely innocent eyes, while allowing for some inchoately adult comprehension. There is a long history of using young people for social critique, from Rossellini’s Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero, 1948) to Meirelles/Lund’s Cidade de Deus (City of God, 2002) and da Cunha exhibits a keen sense of the neighbourhood that is expertly expressed by the actors and shot by his slithering, on-the-ground camera – there is, in a parallel to Vitalina, a rigorous refiguration of neorealism, of memorable location shooting, for instance, but stylised in riveting ways by Steadicam journeys through Reboleira’s mean streets. In one telling scene, three friends discuss what they would do with lottery winnings. One would buy a big house with room for some animals, one would invest in a bar to launder drug money, but Spira asks why dream, what’s the point? And the film explores how the only manner that Spira can apparently express any dreams is largely, if understandably, destructive. It is an acknowledgement of the film’s accomplished approach just how much we can comprehend Spira’s explosive reaction to his difficult return home.

Early in Koji Fukada’s Yokogao (A Girl Missing), the protagonist (Mariko Tsutsui) gives a false name in a hair salon as the camera tracks around one of the salon’s many massive mirrors, highlighting how elusive identity can remain even as one tries, by determined design, to manage it. Are we who we say we are? Are we what we do? To whom we are related? These become murky, even mystifying questions in Fukada’s Hitchcockian world where people become obsessed with each other and act on those obsessions in ways both surprisingly direct and creepily oblique. When she goes to have her hair done in this opening sequence, Risa Uchida  (whose real name is Ichiko Shirakawa) refers to radical recent changes in her life, both professionally (quitting her job) and personally (breaking off a long-term engagement). Ichiko’s world has crumbled because the eponymous missing girl, Saki, was abducted by Ichiko’s nephew, whom she introduced to the unwitting Saki at a café. Ichiko is Saki’s family’s home-care nurse, caring primarily for Saki’s artist grandmother but generally helping out and having grown close to the entire family. Ichiko was tutoring Saki and Saki’s older sister Motoko at the fateful café when the nephew came by and, apparently, became criminally obsessed with Saki. When the media run sensationally with the abduction of Saki and its mysterious motivation, Ichiko at first remains silent about her connection to the kidnapper, but when the truth comes out – with an obsessive, malicious intent – her world starts to crumble. Not only the obsessiveness and psychological intensity, but also the guilt spread carefully around bespeak the satisfyingly Hitchcockian world. The film is intriguingly conceived and expertly acted – although it seems underscripted in parts – with the double time-layering matching the doubling of Ichiko’s identity as she seeks revenge. The psychological intensity and expertly understated performances, however, keep the viewer engrossed, and guessing, throughout one of the competition’s most gratifying films.

Yokogao (A Girl Missing, Koji Fukada)

For another superlative, the most terrifying film in the competition – and another one picked up by Toronto – Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche’s Terminal Sud unfolds in an unidentified Mediterranean country in which a number of languages from southern Europe and northern Africa are spoken simultaneously. Without going into specifics either geographically or politically, the film masterfully conveys how political strife and social instability can wreak social anarchy, wreck loving couples, ravage hapless individuals. In its deliberately loose, even fragmentary plotting, the film follows the charismatic but crumbling Dr. Zy, played unforgettably by Ramzy Bedia, who struggles to maintain and sustain health and humanity in an increasingly impossible context. Sud shows just how quickly – when guns run rampant and social norms evaporate – everyday life can fall disturbingly apart, especially when the institutions one relies on suddenly shift. If critiques of government are ubiquitous in our contemporary political context, the film underscores just how reliant a peaceful everyday is on public institutions. In the harrowing world that Ameur-Zaïmeche depicts, every street intersection becomes a menace, every knock on the door a threat, every medical patient a shocking trap. Eventually, when the good doctor is kidnapped and forced to treat someone whose name and background he never learns, he unknowingly crosses the wrong people, who quickly make their well-armed displeasure known. Many scenes recall the power and punch of Battle of Algiers without that film’s battered but abiding hope.

Terminal Sud (Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche)

The movingly elegiac Fi al-thawra (During Revolution) by Maya Khoury cuts largely between two types of shots, if not quite discrete documentary storylines. Khoury alternates strategy sessions of rebels against Syrian’s long-time dictator, Bashar Al-Assad, with the increasing destruction of Syrian cities by the land-and-air forces of the government. Shot on held-hand video by an unseen and unvoiced camera person, the intimacy of the shots is often breathtaking, and the way in which these two lines meet and entwine – with the latter eventually overwhelming the former in brutal fashion – is a powerful reminder of the way wars operate on the psychology of individuals fighting them. Particularly effective is the way that the technological optimism of 2011-13 – of what and where to post, how to pitch to television stations and NGOs, etc. – increasingly gives way to the crude and increasingly cruel material realities of heavy armament and aerial bombardment. Even in hewing close to the rebels – who insist that this is a revolution, not just a police intervention or civil war – During Revolution is clear-eyed about the divisions and infighting that mark the forces driving the would-be revolution, particularly in generational tensions and diverging opinions of the role of Islam. The film is closely observed with a number of intriguing personalities, including a canny woman strategist, a recently released political prisoner, and sophisticated security-minded individual aiming to set up more rationalised, and tech savvy, military police to patrol Aleppo. Although moving, Revolution’s weakness is also this level of proximity to a few characters. Nonetheless, the film is powerful, and one has the sense that it will be an important document of those who, to paraphrase the adage, will not get to write the history of this fateful conflict.

This year’s competition somewhat unusually offered two comedies, both of which ably took up, befitting their art-cinema contexts, serious themes among their laughs. Mina Mileva and Vesela Kazakova’s Cat in the Wall ignores, two times over, the age-old film industry admonishment (attributed to W.C. Fields) that actors should avoid working with children and animals: Irina is a single mother of a cute young son, assisted in raising him by her live-in brother, Vladimir, who engineers adopting the eponymous cat. Even though the child and feline predictably steal the early scenes, Mileva and Kazakova nonetheless use the loose familial set up and a light comedic touch to explore a constellation much in the political and social discussion these days, namely, eastern European immigration to the United Kingdom and its role in Brexit. This Bulgarian family is sharing a flat in southeast London, with the architect Irina underemployed as a bartender and her historian brother Vladimir as a tv-dish installer, having to work, as many immigrants do, outside, and pay-wise well under, their trained professions. The film even stages a number of a conversations about immigration, its challenges, and the much-ballyhooed benefits that they allegedly enjoy: the cat in the wall serves, in Eastern-European absurdist fashion, as a mini-crisis in the apartment building convening any number of its tenants to discuss the social implications of public-housing estates and the state of Europe today. The production values are not always the highest, but it is solidly made and anchored by funny and engaging performances by Irina Atanasova as her namesake and Angel Genov as the satisfyingly roguish brother.

The title of João Nicolau’s amusing Technoboss has several meanings that emerge through the peripatetic work patterns of its droll technician-salesman Luis Rovisco (Miguel Lobo Antunes). It refers first to a deliberately branded security system offered by Luis’s company SigurVale, which promises customers far and wide some cheerful sounding “integrated systems of access control”. Such systems of sensors, cameras, monitors and consistently uncooperative keypads seem more ominous than they are. As Luis curmudgeonly encounters a new generation of managers fixated on alleged innovation – primarily empty technologies and ham-handed efficiency – he mocks the theories and practices of Portuguese neoliberalism as it spreads around the post-2009/10 economy there. The eponymous Technoboss might refer to Luis’s supervisors, with whom he is on generally good terms, but who might also be keeping him from field assignments he enjoys suspiciously so much, especially in one hotel where he has a mysterious history with one of the female employees. And, finally, the title underscores Nicolau’s central conceit: committed to whistling while he works, Luis is given to abrupt song to make sense of his career and the surroundings into which it brings him, ranging from folk, ballads, a heartfelt ode to his cats, and, last but not least, techno beats sung robotically by the aged employee with a bum knee. Luis’s singing starts on his many solo car-rides out to clients, but increasingly they spill over into his regular work life, to which he, nearing retirement, is progressively oblivious. The film is anchored by an engagingly absurdist performance by Lobo Antunes as Luis and then by many players around him, including his late-in-life love interest Lucinda, whose deadpan delivery of lines recall Kaurismäki in the best ways, even if this Portuguese translation of Finnish humour runs a little long at points. It is not an easy concept to execute, but Miguel Lobo Antunes and Luísa Cruz almost pull it off.

Technoboss (João Nicolau)

Das freiwillige Jahr (A Voluntary Year) is the product of an unusual collaboration between two experienced German writer-directors, Ulrich Köhler and Henner Winkler. Köhler and Winkler apparently co-wrote the screenplay in a shared document online so they could contribute and critique simultaneously. Both directors are associated with the loose grouping of German directors dubbed “The Berlin School”, discussed by Marco Abel among others as a generation of filmmakers aiming to revive the artistically more ambitious German cinema of the 1970s after a couple of decades of generally more “consensus cinema”, as Eric Rentschler has influentially put it. Christian Petzold is perhaps the internationally best-known of these directors, but Locarno has helped promote less well-known Berlin-School auteurs like Christoph Hochhäusler and Angela Schanelec, and this year Locarno gave its producer award (the Rezzinico prize) to Komplizen Film, a production firm helmed, along with Janine Jackowski and Jonas Dornbach, by Maren Ade (Everybody Else, Toni Erdmann). A Voluntary Year takes up a constellation somewhat familiar from a number of Berlin School, and even from Köhler and Winckler films: a late adolescent (May-Britt Klenke) unsure of herself and her place in the world, decides abruptly to drop out with her boyfriend (Thomas Schubert, from 2011’s excellent Atmen [Breathing]) – all contrary to the subtle social pressures of the comfortable, smotheringly smug middle class around her. In A Voluntary Year, these pressures arise primarily from her father (Sebastian Rudolph, from Dark, The English Patient and Stalingrad), a successful small-town physician who lives in the German provinces but openly disdains them – the kind of guy who always has his windsurfing equipment strapped on his car as implements of small-town denial. Surprisingly seamless for a collaboration between the accomplished directors, the film revisits not only Berlin School themes (adolescence, generational tensions, the control society of well-to-do Germany) but also recurring locations, with the airport, the forest, and even the mini-bus all playing a significant role. For experienced viewers of these films, Köhler and Winckler’s are interesting revisitations of these motifs, but they are all woven into a plot well written and acted that remains engaging throughout.

Nadège Trebal’s Douze Mille (Twelve Thousand) refers to the amount that unemployed Franck (Arieh Worthalter) promises to bring back to his girlfriend Maroussia – played by the director Trebal – when he leaves her for a job 100kms away. What sounds like a promising premise for a noirish thriller is actually a rambunctious rumination on life in the post-industrial economy of Europe, as Franck is heading out for a temporary contract as the cleaner of industrial tanks in an economy where containers arrive much more than products are manufactured. To get to his promised 12,000Euro, Franck cooks up a scheme to assist some dancing female thieves to avail themselves of these containers’ contents. As these dancing thieves suggest, the film is perhaps most intriguing for its tonal shifts as it engages with wide-ranging themes, including not only unemployment and globalisation but also emotional manipulation and sexual obsession – a constellation that does not quite cohere over the course of the film. At times, Franck is a tramp figure, with reference to the down-and-out Chaplin manifest in his very physical performance and clownish dances. At other times, he noirishly seduces or is nearly seduced in scenarios always fraught with money and the economic-sexual fantasies often surrounding it. Worthalter as Franck does his best to play a charismatically inviting rogue, but the film never does hang together convincingly or fragment intriguingly.

Endless Night (Eloy Enciso)

In an early scene of Eloy Enciso’s Endless Night, viewers meet a kindly looking middle-aged man returning to his home in Galicia. Dubbed “the one returning”, he (Misha Bies Golas) is sitting on a nearly empty bus across from a meek-, even mousy-looking business man who asks about the returner’s profession and then suddenly shifts (bus) gears into discussing the finer points of falangism’s relationship to conventional Spanish fascism. Time, and memory, are immediately evoked by the title – a poetic reference to the dictatorship – and the film’s meticulous stagings are fascinatingly out of time in a way that recalls Petzold’s similarly temporally disorienting Transit: the clothes, the trappings, then especially the landscape could all be back then, but the trauma abides. For example, a seemingly modern card game – by costuming and hair, if not by playing cards – turns to a fascism-echoing debate about the happy hierarchy of the rich over the poor. By the later parts of the film, the intersection of the lovely everyday with high-stakes politics proves heartbreaking in two lengthy monologues by former prisoners facing torture and death. After these shocking performances, the film hurtles toward its conclusion with the recitations of presumably final letters from prison, one to loved ones as well as one begging the grotesquely grandiose fascists for mercy. The performance of these long monologues in the beautiful spaces of Galicia are among the most moving scenes in this year’s festival, including one completely Kafkaesque piece about being transferred abruptly by stone-faced guards, presumably toward summary execution, but at the last moment not – a shocking, last-minute reprieve without, as viewers learn, any kind of relief. Another recitation has an older gentleman recounting, reminiscent of Jean Amery’s influential ruminations, how torture worked its way into the memory not only of his terrified psyche but burrowed into his nerves, his muscles, his sinew. The intersection of beautiful landscapes and searing memories – and the awfulness of time’s moving inevitably on — recalls canonical Holocaust documentaries like Resnais’s Night and Fog (1956) and Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), with Endless Night similarly, studiously avoiding any historical footage. I found the film unforgettable and one of the unrecognised highlights – if one may use a celebratory word for a film so creatively investigating such crimes – of the festival.

Locarno Film Festival
7-17 August 2019
Festival website: https://www.locarnofestival.ch/pardo/festival-del-film-locarno/home.html

Endnotes:

  1. Yohana Desta, “Venice Film Fest: Brad Pitt’s Ad Astra, Joker Make the Lineup,” Vanity Fair, 26 July, 2019, accessed 16 September, 2019.
  2. Nick Vivarelli, “New Locarno Chief Lili Hinstin on Gender Parity and Feminist Men on Her Selection Panel,” Variety, 5 August, 2019, accessed 16 September, 2019.
  3. Rebecca Keegan, “Cannes’ 50-50 Gender Parity Pledge, One Year Later: Has the Festival Delivered?Hollywood Reporter, 10 May, 2019, accessed 16 September, 2019.
  4. Rüdiger Suchsland, “Die Mandarins von Locarno,” Artechock, 19 August, 2019, accessed 16 September, 2019.
  5. Catherine Breillat and Ben Croll, “Locarno Jury Chief Catherine Breillat on Cinema, Gender, Controversy”, accessed 16 September, 2019.
  6. Sam Cowie, “Jair Bolsonaro Praised the Genocide of Indigenous People. Now He’s Emboldening Attackers of Brazil’s Amazonian Communities”, 6 February, 2019, accessed 16 September, 2019.

About The Author

Jaimey Fisher is Professor of German and Cinema and Technocultural Studies as well as Director of the Davis Humanities Institute at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of Christian Petzold (University of Illinois Press, 2013) as well as Disciplining German: Youth, Reeducation, and Reconstruction after the Second World War (Wayne State Press, 2007). He edited the volume Generic Histories of German Cinema: Genre and its Deviations (Camden House, 2013) and has also co-edited the forthcoming The Berlin School and Its Global Contexts: A Transnational Art-Cinema (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2018) with Marco Abel; Collapse of the Conventional: German Film and its Politics at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century with Brad Prager (2010); Spatial Turns: Space, Place, and Mobility in German Literary and Visual Culture (2010) with Barbara Mennel; and, Critical Theory: Current State and Future Prospects (2001) with Peter Hohendahl. His current book-project analyses war films in Germany from 1914-1961.