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Locarno 2014. Impressions Part I: People as Places as People

Two great films in the earlygoing at Locarno: Lav Diaz's "From What is Before" & Matìas Piñeiro's "The Princess of France".
There are many reasons why Locarno is my favourite film festival. It has the most effectively temporally varied and regionally diverse program of films there is—hop from Pedro Costa's latest to a masterpiece by Agnès Varda, Vittorio De Sica, or Victor Erice (often on 35mm, it should be noted), or discover an Italian film in the Titanus retrospective by a filmmaker you've never heard of. It's also the environment itself, which enables, for me, the most engaging experience of moviegoing: a perfect balance of relaxed atmosphere, an endless array of interesting films, and an audience of cinephiles eager to shuffle into every screening. After all, it is the people who define places, and the transient international population of Locarno transforms the Italian-Swiss town into a summer camp of movie lovers. With the (mostly) no-BS program of films spanning cinema's reach geographically and historically, and a selection of the 'new' predicated on quality rather than Cannes-esque media attention-grabbing, Locarno is a very difficult place to be jaded, even for the most hardened veterans of globetrotting cinephilia.
This year, an extraordinary way to begin a film festival was afforded those who arrived early enough to attend the very first press screening, that of Lav Diaz's five-and-a-half hour From What Is Before. Beginning free of dialogue, the early parts of the film are defined by the landscapes of its Filipino countryside setting. Traversing these landscapes are figures that will become characters over the next few hours, as detail by detail is slowly divulged as the film gracefully, surprisingly unfolds. The environment is the main character of the first hour or so—a sense of the synchronicity in people and place is imbued in every scene, every shot, until this relationship becomes disrupted, and the film reveals its true self. Until the film's true cards are finally illuminated, you become lulled by Before's subtle rhythms, the emphasis on nature, rocks, waves, the sounds of the forest. But as layer by layer is peeled back, the dark, aching core of the film takes over.
Increasingly complex, political, and emotional, From What is Before is a painful remembrance of a period of transition that marked the traumatic time of dictator Ferdinand Marcos' rule, and in particular the proclamation of martial law in 1972, seven years into his time in power. However, the film's political context is almost entirely peripheral until late in the film, which reshapes what comes before in its slowly unfurling structure. Strange occurrences in a remote barrio slowly spreads fear amidst its inhabitants: slaughtered cows, a body at the side of a road, burned homes, strange noises. But the source of the town's new sufferings is anonymous: something in the air, a whispered change in the wind. We get to know the members of this community: a young woman struggling with cerebral palsy and the devoted sister at her side, an enigmatic winemaker, a priest, a little boy and the haunted man who takes care of him... Several small stories alternate among one another, intertwining unassumingly. The narrative threads of the film, at first loose, tighten and in light of later developments come to reflect a nation's uneasy and tumultuous shift into paranoia and useless violence, as reality fades into nightmare.
Once a military presence establishes itself, the town's ties slowly dissolve. The population faces new struggles, and dwindles as a result. Some evacuate, some perish, leaving only the ghost of a former place, the people a fading memory of the landscape, that now knows only cruelty and madness. The film manages to tiptoe around strict allegory using the power of suggestiveness in favour of overwrought symbolism, and retains the essentialism of being a modest, albeit devastating, story of a place and its people.
In almost comical contrast to Diaz’s epic slowburner, the next film I saw was Matías Piñeiro's 70-minute The Princess of France, the follow-up to the director's acclaimed 2012 feature, Viola. Another exploration (or teasing, perhaps, as Piñeiro's interaction with the material is characteristically playful and humble) of Shakespeare, this time around the source material is Love's Labour's Lost. The film's characters are reuniting to put on a radio show of the Shakespeare play—one that they had previously performed together (though this is something we merely glimpse). Now, they revolve around one another in a web of romances, friendships, and fictions. Victor is the center of it all, the director of the play, and his relationships with his five actresses are each distinct, different pathways of life and love.
Matías Piñeiro's films are light as a feather, and indeed The Princess of France exemplifies this quality. Soft, warm, gentle—it is a film that flutters about, intricately constructed but formally defined by the people within its frames. The camera is glued to the characters, but not to their faces in simple close ups, but rather in a pliable orbit around them, attuned to their gestures, their spirit. As much as Piñeiro's focus is on the text, and expanding possibilities of working with Shakespeare, his attention seems equally transfixed by his love for people, their words, movements, smiles, feelings, hopes. The camera dances with the characters in a ballet of graceful movement. Each sequence has its own set of pleasures and sensations. A shot looking down from a rooftop at a concrete soccer pitch (I won't spoil the actual content of this stunning long take) opens the film on a whimsical, fantastical note before we're tugged into the performance of the play, and into the world of the characters. One scene (another long take) follows as musicians work on a score to accompany the radio play. An actor reads from the text as the camera pans back and forth as they try two different pieces to go with the reading. The love for the words here is (out?)matched by a love for capturing moments, and weaving them together in an ode, not to just to Shakespeare, but to music, friendship, cinema.
This is the third of Piñeiro's "Shakespereads," and there are already two more being developed. These films are quietly forming one of the most unique continuums of work today, challenging notions of how we interpret and apply such sacred source material, not simply working in adaptation but building on and appropriating the text to find new ideas, stories, and forms.

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