Ronan Doyle reports from the 66th Locarno Film Festival
“This is true cinema!” screamed Baltasar Kormákur—the animated Icelandic director whose latest movie, 2 Guns, opened this year’s Locarno Film Festival — to the signature outdoor venue Piazza Grande’s rapidly-emptying 8,000 seats as a wild storm forced the bulk of the crowd out, or rather in. Two weeks on, with the festival’s hectic feast of films now behind us, it’s clear just how appropriate an intro that scene proved to be. It was true cinema, a proud celebration of the wide diversity that comprises modern movies and a fitting tribute to their immense power to bring us together in our droves.
That’s a potential paid tribute to in the Piazza Grande selection as much as the typically varied competition strand. Carlo Chatrian, assuming artistic director duties for the first time after many years with the festival in other capacities, evidently understands the dual demands of a venue so large. Nowhere is the manner in which the festival overtakes its host—a small city in Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton Ticino, hugged by mountains on one side and Lake Maggiore on the other—better seen than the Piazza, a makeshift screening space erected in the city’s dead-centre with Europe’s largest outdoor cinema screen. To fill so many seats is of course a commercial concern, and one seemingly at odds with the spirit of discovery on which the festival provides itself. Yet Chatrian managed a miraculous balancing act with the chosen array, deftly sneaking in subversive oddities like Quentin Dupieux’s absurdist Wrong Cops alongside mainstream fare such as We’re the Millers. No doubt the festival’s nightly award ceremonies helped, inviting festival goers to preface Piazza screenings with presentations to cinema legends the like of Christopher Lee, Anna Karina, and Werner Herzog.
But those less drawn to the shine of stars had other options aplenty, as Locarno’s wealth of venues played host to a bulging slate of twenty titles in competition. Catalan director Albert Serra’s Dracula-meets-Casanova period drama Story of My Death was eventually awarded the prestigious Pardo d’Oro, a disappointingly stuffy choice when considered alongside the cream of its competitors. Droves of walkouts at the first public screening of Hélene Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s extreme neo-giallo horror The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears made that movie’s chances unlikely from the get-go, but how nice it might have been to see something so different afforded some recognition, particularly given its brilliance as an intimidating indictment of the male gaze. Or why not What Now? Remind Me, Portuguese director Joaquim Pinto’s profoundly personal chronicle of a year spent undergoing experimental treatment for HIV? Extraordinarily and often excruciatingly moving, the film at least earned the runner-up award from the Lav Diaz-led jury, as well as the FIPRESCI prize from international critics.
The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (Hélene Cattet and Bruno Forzani)
Special mentions were afforded Yves Yersin’s Tableau Noir and Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12, whose rapturous reception, standing ovations and all, ensured it an early spot atop the likely winners list. Star Brie Larsson rightly won the jury’s best actress award, while El Mudo’s Fernando Bacilio took home the corresponding male prize. The venerable Hong Sang-soo won best director for his endlessly entertaining Our Sunhi, another boozy tale of men defining women in the image of their own imagination. Other standouts included Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu’s spare self-referential comedy When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism and Exhibition, a stunningly-shot study from rising British director Joanna Hogg.
Our Sunhi (Hong Sang-soo)
More talent still outside the main competition; the festival’s Cineasti del Presente strand is a promise for the future, bringing together a selection of first and second-time directors for a varied slate of international efforts. Victory here for Manakamana—an often wordless documentary composed of static ten-minute shots from within a cable car—from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, whose Leviathan was part of the main competition at Locarno last year. Lois Patiño’s best director victory for Coast of Death was unsurprising given the film’s stunning capture of the Galician cliffs. A special mention deservedly went to Thai director Nontawat Numbenchapol, whose By the River was one of the festival’s most unquestionably beautiful offerings, despite the troublesome structure of its docudrama look at local lead poisoning.
Coast of Death (Lois Patiño)
For all the indication Locarno offered this year of the security of cinema’s future, it was no less a celebration of its past, as retrospectives aplenty cast festival-goers’ collective mind back to generations past. A comprehensive collection of Hollywood director George Cukor’s filmography was the main appeal, reliably filling screenings with the variety of Golden Age stars that populate his movies. Each of the festival’s honourees were treated to screenings of their work, too, treating audiences to a dozen Herzog films as well as a pair of screenings of special effects legend Douglas Trumbull’s career-maker 2001: A Space Odyssey.
That a classic as unassailable as that film could share a screening venue with a host of new movies from little-known directors is indicative of the broad definition of cinema the Locarno Film Festival thrives on. The hundreds of screenings and thousands upon thousands of viewers that made up its 66th edition eagerly attest the culture of community the movies have the power to foster. How right Kormákur was as he stood before the storm on that opening night. How strong a display of true cinema this has been.