This year at the Locarno Festival
I am looking for specific images, moments, techniques, qualities or scenes from films across the 70th edition's selection that grabbed me and have lingered past and beyond the next movie seen, whose characters, story and images have already begun to overwrite those that came just before.
A girl on the verge of womanhood practicing piano in the living room of her instructor in Ilian Metev’s ¾ (Filmmakers of the Present). It hardly matters if actress Mila Mikhova is actually playing the piano or not in Metev’s loose, gently improvising Bulgarian drama of a three-member family—adolescent boy, teen sister and their father—each on the cusp of a new movement in their lives. We see her face pursed but pretty, concentrating hard, deep in her attempt, frustrated at her limitations, and embarrassed by her perceived faults. The music flows and halts, the kindly but firm tutor observes and sometimes interjects, and we get the best example of the insight in this strong, off-kilter film’s vivid sense of people, inside and out, observed through faltering daily habits. The camera almost always is ahead of each family member, moving backwards as they walk forward into their uncertain future. This girl trying to play, searching for the rhythm, the inspiration and individuality, is a beautiful moment to behold. So far, it is one of the best premieres at Locarno.
The flagrently artificial science fiction costumes, weapons and spaceships of Era uma Vez Brasília (Once There Was Brazilia). This impressive, if over-long, D.Y.I. whats-it in the Signs of Life program runs on the fumes of fear and disdain for the political tumult now roiling in Brazil. Adirley Queirós’s film uses makeshift future-world production design (space ships and cosmic warriors!) to cast this fiercely topical speculation in political assassination, class revolt, and intergalactic intercession as a bare bones sci-fi film that makes John Carpenter’s Dark Star seem like a mega-production. The result may be too dedicated to the audience experiencing repetitious duration of action, but the spirit of the production—a sense of camaraderie, shared anger, creative handicraft and a wry sense of humor—is supremely admirable.
The fierce, violent austerity of the climax to Jacques Tourneur's Circle of Danger (1951). This post-war mystery oscillates between romance scenes in confined interiors and a tour of the United Kingdom—London, Wales, Scotland—but the finale shocks in its sudden shift in visual style. It's a showdown between Ray Millard's American investigating the secret history of his brother in a British commando unit during the war, and an officer in the dead brother's unit. This meeting seemed inevitable, but the setting not: the picturesque tour of the story is stripped down to the bare hills of Scotland, a no-man's-land of short-cut grass with not a town, tree, bush or person in sight; except, that is, for the two armed men, and a third who shows up in a sinister black leather jacket. These bare figures, ready for violence but weary of the hunt and the weight of death's melancholy, stand out so strongly against this negative space that they appear super-graphic. Suddenly, 1951 looks like Seijun Suzuki crime films or Sergio Leone westerns from the 1960s, where real locations and environments are distilled to iconography: bold, irrealistic visuals heightening the abstraction of the violent encounters, removing them from conventional drama and through this disjunction ratcheting up conflict to grander heights. The revelation at the climax of Circle of Danger is so surprising that the world up until now seems turned outside down. Thus when these men meet in a strangely alien landscape the film's form is changing to anticipate and set the scene for this radical shift: a barren, disturbing place never seen before or after in the movie. It is this moment that a modern film becomes a modernist one.