State of the Festival: History Lessons at Locarno

With a Douglas Sirk retrospective and many adventurous premieres, Locarno's fully physical edition underlined the festival's strengths.
Jordan Cronk

Human Flowers of Flesh.

For its second edition under director Giona A. Nazzaro and the first fully physical iteration since 2019, the Locarno Film Festival sought to reestablish itself in 2022 as one of the preeminent destinations for cinephiles looking to simultaneously discover fresh talent, take in new work by veteran directors, and dive deep into film history. While Nazzaro’s stated intention to make the festival more audience-friendly—if not outright commercial—was met with skepticism by critics accustomed to Locarno’s tradition of championing art cinema, it’s clear after two years that these comments didn’t portend a drastic realignment of programming values so much as anticipate a reevaluation of the festival’s perceived strengths. Due to the elimination of a couple of sidebars, the curatorial focus is now centered directly on the International Competition and Filmmakers of the Present sections, with even some clever cross-pollination between these strands and the more mainstream-oriented Piazza Grande program, which this year opened with the world premiere of Bullet Train. Meanwhile, a recommitment to its much beloved retrospective sidebar, headlined this year by the first complete survey of the films of German émigré Douglas Sirk, made the festival’s 75th edition feel more like the Locarno of old than any of the more adventurous offerings in its main selection.

Unfortunately, few examples of this kind of intrepid filmmaking were awarded by the juries. On paper, Julia Murat’s Rule 34, which won the Golden Leopard in the International Competition, has all the makings of a bold statement. But while this story of a Black female law student moonlighting as a BDSM-curious cam girl sagely rewrites some social and sexual archetypes, ultimately that’s all it amounts to: a few character details in search of a formal or dramatic framework to activate its ostensibly taboo subject matter. The same can be said of Nightsiren, a tired and blandly visualized allegorical folk horror from Slovakian director Tereza Nvotová, which took home the Filmmakers of the Present top prize. Better were some of those sections’ secondary prize-winners, in particular Alessandro Comodin’s The Adventures of Gigi the Law, a magic-realist tale of a small-town Italian cop (played by the director’s real-life uncle), which won the Special Jury Prize in competition, and Juraj Lerotić’s Safe Place, an impeccably shot and occasionally daring suicide drama, which picked up both the Best Emerging Director and Best First Feature prizes, as well as the Best Actor prize in Filmmakers of the Present for Goran Marković.

Tales of the Purple House.

While it’s not uncommon for critics and festival juries to have split opinions, at this year’s Locarno it felt especially pronounced. For me and many others, nearly all of our favorites went home empty-handed. In some cases, such as Helena Wittmann’s bewitching sophomore feature Human Flowers of Flesh, an elliptical tale of female desire set on the high seas that pushes the German filmmaker’s materialist impulses further than ever, such an outcome is discouraging, if hardly surprising; the film’s oceanic narrative progression and allusions to the history of the French Foreign Legion are nothing if not imposing. In others, like Abbas Fahdel’s Tales of the Purple House, it’s frustrating how a work of such self-evident virtue could be ignored. A dual portrait of the French-Iraqi Fahdel’s Lebanese wife, the painter Nour Ballouk, and their home in the south of Lebanon, the film charts the couple’s life during the pandemic as Israel dropped bombs on nearby Beirut and protests erupted throughout the country. Juxtaposing Lebanon’s war-torn city streets with the beauty of the countryside, Fahdel—whose two most recent documentaries, Homeland: Iraq Year Zero (2015) and Bitter Bread (2019), shone an extraordinary light on the people and places affected by the political turmoil in the Middle East—spends ample time reflecting on the role of art in times of crises through extraordinary images of the natural landscape, clips from films like Mirror (1975) and Red Desert (1964), and intimate scenes of Ballouk painting in the garden. The couple’s home, ensconced in greenery and bustling with cats, serves as a veritable sanctuary from the outside world; the only notable interaction comes in the form of a young Syrian boy whose delicately fictionalized conversations with Ballouk provide a modest narrative thread for a film that otherwise unfolds like a panorama of a shared experience.


Of the encouraging number of titles by big-name auteurs in the festival, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Fairytale was the most widely anticipated. The Russian master’s first feature in seven years, it’s another in a line of late-period curveballs that have seen the director—who crossed the Russian border by car to attend the festival after being denied exit a few weeks prior—experimenting with a variety of styles and storytelling strategies. Fairytale is his most left-field offering yet: a speculative fiction made with deepfake technology that imagines an encounter between Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, and Winston Churchill. Fashioned from hours of archival footage, the film unfolds in a purgatory-like space in which these figures of evil are given voice and made to interact with one another as animated backdrops churn impressionistically in the distance. Visually, the film resembles the vaguely gothic look of such mid-career Sokurov films as Stone (1992) and Whispering Pages (1994), albeit achieved through digital composites that appear to combine sketches, photographs, and imagery lifted from various mid-20th-century artworks. Where it differs, even in comparison to the director’s previous tetralogy of dictatorial portraits, is in its tone. Save for an opening cameo by Jesus and a later intervention by Napoleon, the film’s four subjects are essentially left to bicker and insult one another as the world around them slowly crumbles; jokes about Stalin’s body odor abound, while an image of Hitler on the toilet is the kind of sophomoric sight gag I can safely say I never expected to see in a Sokurov film, particularly one playing in competition at a major festival. A genuine whatsit, Fairytale is world history by way of the uncanny valley: surreal, disturbing, and oh-so-perversely funny.

History manifested itself in mysterious ways throughout the festival. Beginning with Where Is This Street? or With No Before And After, the latest co-directed feature by João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata, a programming thread connecting past and present incarnations of Portuguese cinema slowly revealed itself. A docu-fantasy in the mold of the duo’s earlier The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012), Where Is This Street? conjures the spirit of director Paulo Rocha and his trailblazing debut The Green Years (1963) as it revisits many of that film’s original locations in Lisbon. Beginning with a shot taken from the window of Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata’s apartment, the film playfully traverses time and space as clips and music cues from Rocha’s film are matched to images of its settings in the present day of the pandemic—an appropriately haunted backdrop for an unexpected appearance by legendary Green Years star Isabel Ruth, who emerges at key junctures, including the film’s operatic finale, like a ghost from cinema’s past. 

Where Is This Street? or With No Before And After.

Like Ruth, cinematographer Acácio de Almeida has worked with many masters of Portuguese cinema, chief among them Manoel de Oliveira. Both Almeida and Oliveira had films at Locarno: Almeida’s Objectos de Luz (Love Lights), an exceedingly-belated directorial debut made in collaboration with actress Marie Carré, features the 84-year-old cameraman reflecting on his career and the art of cinematography in endearingly cosmic terms; meanwhile, Olivera’s 1992 feature Day of Despair, a homebound portrait of the final years in the life of author Camilo Castelo Branco (whose 19th-century novel Amor de Perdição Oliveira adapted into the landmark 1978 film of the same name), was presented in a luminous new restoration. Taken together, these three films acted as a kind of pocket history of Portuguese modernity.

For many, the Douglas Sirk retrospective was reason enough to travel to Locarno. Along with 35mm prints of many of his beloved Hollywood melodramas (Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, et al), the program featured not only the director’s complete surviving filmography from his early years spent working in Germany under his birth name Detlef Sierck (including a few films he wrote and in some cases ghost-directed), but also a trio of short films he made in the 1970s with a group of students at the Munich film school Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film, where he was encouraged to begin teaching late in life by his most ardent admirer, the director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Up to now all but unseen, these shorts were the highlight of a festival with no shortage of alluring oddities.

In the first, Talk to Me Like the Rain (1975), an adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play, Sirk and his students artfully stage a late-night conversation in a seedy apartment between a pair of poverty-stricken lovers. For the second, New Year’s Eve (1977), Sirk enlisted Fassbinder regular Hanna Schygulla for an Arthur Schnitzler adaptation that pairs the great German actress with a young Christian Berkel. As snow falls outside the window of a lavish estate, the two engage in a melancholic dialogue about the perils of romance. Bourbon Street Blues (1978), another Williams adaptation, was Sirk’s final film. Starring Annemarie Düringer and Doris Schade alongside Fassbinder himself, the film depicts the conflict between an emotionally distressed widow and her uncaring landlady. As the brooding neighbor forced to intervene between the two women, Fassbinder is a force of nature in a way familiar to many of his most memorable acting roles. What’s fascinating is that by 1978, after many years channeling Sirk in films like Ali: Fears Eats the Soul (1974), Fassbinder’s influence on his elder can be equally felt, to the point that Bourbon Street Blues resembles nothing so much as a contemporaneous Fassbinder production, all burnt umber hues and barely repressed energy. At once old, new, and revelatory, it embodied the best of a Locarno that suggested that the festival can still offer as broad and engaging a view of cinema as any.

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Festival CoverageLocarnoLocarno 2022State of the FestivalJulia MuratTereza NvotováAlessandro ComodinJuraj LerotićHelena WittmannAbbas FahdelAleksandr SokurovJoão Pedro RodriguesJoão Rui Guerra da MataAcácio de AlmeidaDouglas Sirk
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