It’s one thing to watch a film festival unfold and take the films as they come when they come, on their own individual merits. It’s another to look back at them as part of a bigger picture, tracing connections made in invisible ink that may not be apparent at the time. That’s one way to look at the competitive selection of Locarno in 2016. As usual, yes, Locarno did take risks very few other A-list festivals would, and it still gets away with stuff other events can’t. (Let’s pause here to remember that Filipino auteur du jour Lav Diaz only went on to the main Berlin line-up after winning the Golden Leopard two years ago.) If getting away with it means tripping over itself occasionally (and in my short time of attending Locarno there have been stumbles, believe me), I’m absolutely fine with it.
I must, however, before I begin, disclose a sort of conflict of interest. Being Portuguese, the fact that two of my favorite films in the 2016 international competition were the two Portuguese entries, João Pedro Rodrigues’ The Ornithologist (winner of the Best Director prize) and Rita Azevedo Gomes’ stream-of-consciousness essay Correspondences, might come across as biased. In my defense, I can only point out that these are the first pictures from these two well-regarded directors that I genuinely enjoyed and felt moved by—which is also a compliment to the new vistas they open, both to their filmmakers and to their audiences.
Rodrigues’ long-gestating passion project is yet another of his journeys of self-discovery. Following a scientist lost both in nature and within himself, The Ornithologist was also his loosest, freest film, alternately playful and serious, fantastical and grounded; a via crucis of transformation, like a snake shedding its skin or a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, an entire lifetime of cinephilia summed up and crystallized in two hours. It’s the gorgeous, supremely self-confident film I always felt Rodrigues could do if only he would let go—and he did.
Rita Azevedo Gomes’ film was a different beast: a leisurely essay film about the ability of poetry and writing to capture moments in time and preserve them in amber for the future. Part time capsule of a historical moment in Portugal where poetry and exile seemed to be the only windows out to the world, part scrapbook of the director’s own life and experiences. That both these highly idiosyncratic films found their way into Locarno’s main strand is not only a tribute to the festival’s constant lookout for engaging, vital cinema; it’s also a possible starting point for a competition where all of my favorite films were slow-burners unfolding at leisurely paces, inviting the viewer to go on momentous journeys.
Slow-burners, that is, except for one: Akihiko Shiota’s disarmingly cheeky Wet Woman in the Wind, which ran a mere 77 minutes and was written, shot and edited in record time as a commission from venerable Japanese studio Nikkatsu for the reboot of their cult series of pinku eiga—soft-core erotica. For all that, Shiota’s film was a triumph of spontaneity and freedom within tight production and budget constraints, a lively box of surprises reinventing classic screwball tropes with a dose of subversive Marx Brothers anarchy injected into the proceedings, thanks to Yuki Mamiya’s spot-on performance as a vixen waitress that throws into disarray the quiet life of a reformed womanizing playwright. Though I’ve heard accusations of misogyny levelled at Wet Woman in the Wind, to be honest, if anything, it seemed to me a girl-power manifesto on feminine wiles and a throwback to Howard Hawks’ throw-away battle-of-the-sexes comedies like Man’s Favorite Sport?.
Shiota’s breezy comedy, presented early on in the festival, suggested that Locarno might bring a “lighter” set of films than usual in the auteur world. After all, there were Axelle Ropert’s The Apple of My Eye, Yousry Nasrallah’s Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces, and Matías Piñeiro’s latest “Shakespearead” Hermia & Helena. But Ropert’s film turned out to be a wry and smartly crafted exercise in romantic comedy that merely refreshed the tropes with a few choice scenes here and there; Nasrallah’s film was a disappointingly pedestrian family free-for-all around a wedding table that for all intents and purposes came across as a made-for-TV attempt at commedia all’italiana. And Hermia & Helena seemed to be a step backwards for Piñeiro; his first “American” film, shot in New York with nods to the classics (Woody Allen) and the moderns (Noah Baumbach, Alex Ross Perry), was more labored and derivative than his usual, as if the change of setting made him want to emulate his heroes rather than do his own thing.
And thus the apparent lightness of Locarno’s sunny warmth was quickly displaced by the post-Dardenne social problem pictures that seem to be de rigueur at every major festival. Sadly, the jury presided by Mexican Arturo Ripstein picked its winner—by unanimous decision—from this lot, by bestowing the Golden Leopard on the formulaic debut feature from Bulgarian director Ralitza Petrova, Godless. A punishing, brutalist portrait of endemic corruption in modern-day provincial Bulgaria that most observers either dismissed or disliked, Godless was as undeniably well-made as it was redundant; its denunciation of modern Eastern European post-communist, post-capitalist society adds nothing to the work of, say, Andrei Zvyagintsev, Alexei Balabanov or Yuri Bykov, and lacked the stylistic punch of the Romanian New Wave.
Why award Godless instead of its fellow Bulgarian entry, Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s Glory, for instance? This cautionary tale about honesty in a corrupt society at least starts out as Romanian-type satire, even if it grows darker and more bitter by the moment, its mechanics of disaster borrowed from classic burlesque turned into an engine for tragedy and despair. It was both smarter and more to the point than Godless, even if its twist ending seemed to be too smart-alecky for its own good.
So Godless ended up taking the top award (plus the Best Actress award) in a festival that usually prizes originality, ingenuity, innovation. It seemed sort of a mismatch. I could see it winning Berlin’s Golden Bear, since the Berlinale has a tradition of committing to problem pictures, but Locarno? Even Lav Diaz’s victory two years ago with the epic of Filipino struggles From What Is Before was tempered by the fact that the filmmaker wraps his stories in a thick veil of austere, allusive filmmaking that obfuscates as much as it reveals. And though history weighed heavily this year in the main strand, it did so in much more thoughtful and adventurous ways.
For proof, move next door to Romania, with Radu Jude showing how it’s done with his dazzling fourth feature, thankfully awarded the Special Jury Prize. Scarred Hearts, a slow-burn miniature of between-wars decadence, was inspired by the autobiographical writings of Romanian surrealist Max Blecher, who died at 28 in 1938 from the same bone tuberculosis—Pott’s disease—as the film’s lead character. A work of stunning maturity that uses the by now classic trappings of the Romanian New Wave (naturalistic performances, realistic settings, long sequence shots, absence of music) to startling, distancing effect, it captures the sense of a world on the verge of ending through the life-affirming struggles of the young men and women stuck inside a decaying hospital, powerless to stop either their own decay or the world’s. Scarred Hearts carries the apocalyptic whiff of Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On or Visconti’s Death in Venice, and though it made its points more forcefully, it wasn’t the only film in the main competition to harken back to earlier days. Rita Azevedo Gomes also intertwined both personal and historical events to good effect, and Julien Samani’s promising if imperfect feature debut Jeunesse (adapted from a Joseph Conrad novel) followed a young man enamored of the romance of the sea, pining for the glorious days of adventure and discovery that can never come back. So did Katsuya Tomita’s sadly overlooked Bangkok Nites, as well as the more cerebral entries from two respected female directors who seemed to come up short.
Maybe, however, Angela Schanelec’s The Dreamed Path and Milagros Mumenthaler’s The Idea of a Lake were simply too opaque to unfold properly in the rhythm of a festival, even one as laidback as Locarno can be. Still, I couldn’t really help feeling both were very clear on how they wanted to say their thing, but not so much on what they wanted to say. The Dreamed Path was a miniature of casual encounters and near-misses connecting different people at a 30-year interval between early eighties Greece and modern-day Berlin, showcasing the German director’s precise rigor to great effect while seeming to remain permanently out of reach. The Idea of a Lake was a more conceptual take on Lucrecia Martel’s tone-poems of disaffection, matching a photographer delving into her memories of a father “disappeared” in the mid 1970s with the fractured relationships she leads with everyone around her and the mysterious hole at the center of her family life. Both exactingly built yet undeniably chilly, these films demand repeated viewings to fully unveil their multiple layers; neither seemed to garner much love from the critical fraternity, though both had fierce defenders.
This is also why Katsuya Tomita’s Bangkok Nites was such an achievement: though dealing mainly with the Japanese ex-pat community in Bangkok and its fraught relationship with the locals, it did not see the director “adopting” the local style of filmmaking, even if some of the rural interludes might remind one of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. (For that, go no further than Anocha Suwichakornpong‘s By the Time It Gets Dark, a mystifyingly opaque puzzler that disintegrated into a maze of funhouse mirrors that could be described as “modern-day Tsai Ming-Liang remixing Apichatpong,” with the Thai master’s regular accomplice Lee Chatametikool on board as both producer and editor.)
No, Tomita’s three-hour chamber epic was a decelerated, neon-lighted take on classic post-war noir tropes, used to ask questions about modern capitalism. A top-flight Thai call-girl, a Japanese ex-military man making do with all sorts of odd jobs (played by the director himself), seedy ex-pats attempting to scam greenhorns with promises of quick return on long-shot investments: is there truly a place for genuine love in a dog-eat-dog world where morals take a backseat to practical survival? Is Thailand a capsule glimpse of our own future world, a society of custom-tailored services? Tomita asks the question more than answers it, but at least there’s hope at its end. The circle starts again. Bangkok Nites was the last of the 17 competition entries to screen, came away empty-handed, but I venture it will go on resonating—like most of the films I mentioned here—well beyond the actual winner.