What on paper might have looked like a “weaker” edition of the Locarno Film Festival is shaping up as perhaps a more adventurous one, with illustrious names (last year Chantal Akerman and Andrzej Żuławski were in Locarno) having made way to less eminent but equally stimulating selections. In line with its mandate, the festival cultivates what is vital, or considered to be so, about contemporary cinema while casting a retrospective glance at what may have been forgotten or underestimated, or is simply in need of rediscovery. That some, if not several of the filmmakers whose work Locarno has championed throughout the years keep returning is proof that its artistic identity is somewhat congenital rather than contingent to ephemeral trends or artistic directions. More than a passageway to the upper echelons of the film (post-)industry, Locarno remains a safe-house for those clandestine dreamers committed to a certain idea of cinema, one that doesn't necessarily look upon audiences as customers to be deceived.
Returning to Locarno after their Der Glanz des Tages premiered here in 2012, Tizza Covi and Reiner Frimmel presented their new work in competition. An exceptional masterwork of lowly grandeur, Mister Universo follows Tairo (Tairo Caroli playing himself), a circus tamer who loses his lucky amulet and goes looking for the man who had once given it to him. Accompanying him on this trip, which at some point even defies gravity, is Wendy, a contortionist, colleague and friend of Tairo. This earthbound odyssey in search of the piece of iron that the strong man Arthur Robin had bent and given to a young Tairo as part of his circus number turns into an anti-nostalgic journey down memory lane. A memory that is simultaneously personal and communal as Tairo catches up with old friends and family members of that nomadic family that is the circus—an often maligned world surviving at the edge of what is considered to be art by vulgar elites. And yet the circus is a constitutive element of early (Soviet) cinema, Chaplin made a film in its honor and Fellini elevated it to existential metaphor (a monkey who worked with Fellini briefly appears in Mister Universo). The film strikes an affirmative tone to journey into a vanishing world of attractions and allow audiences to enter Tairo's life without prejudice. Instead of narcissistically inscribing their own story onto their subjects, the filmmakers create a dramatic space where the story comes into being through the emphatic interaction between actors and directors. It is a cinematic practice that refuses not only the illusory distinction between fiction and documentary but most vitally that between life and art. An attitude that is in fact shared by and reflected in the characters we meet, whose circus craft and lifestyle are indistinguishable yet neither romanticized nor pitied.
A similar equipoise, though filtered through a kaleidoscope of flamboyant colors and melodramatic exploits, was to be found in another title in competition, Yousry Nasrallah's Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces. A wedding serves as the narrative excuse to bring up the pleasures, joyful inconsistencies and patriarchal blemishes of Egyptian society, here allegorized by two families. The day monogamy is supposedly sanctified turns into the perfect occasion to undermine its untenable farce as guests, married or unmarried, sensually mingle. Not without consequences... Somewhere in between the popular Italian comedies of the 50s and a Russ Meyer film, from which the director borrows the color palette and the libidinous faith in the hypnotic power of female curves, the film handles different registers nimbly. To a lighter first half of the film, which even ventures into musical territory, follows a darker, more dramatic finale that brings to a logical conclusion the issues raised at the beginning. But Nasrallah avoids condescension in favor of a self-implicating irony that isn't afraid to show the less pleasant consequences of what remains in many respects a less alienated society. What is visually concealed is invested by an even stronger erotic charge, whereas what is politically repressed degenerates into family clan violence. Resorting to the archetypical tropes of popular cinema doesn't stop the filmmaker from working on psychological nuances, though maybe the conclusion suffers from some occasional, formulaic faux pas. That said, Nasrallah stages a sensorial feast of chromatic vitality, sexual overflow and unforgiving social criticism nestled in a solid, consequential narrative that is very hard to come by at film festivals.
Swiss films are not exactly what foreign press delegates flock to see when in Locarno, though an exception this year should be made for Nicolas Wadimoff's Jean Ziegler, the Optimism of Willpower. Paraphrasing Gramsci's dictum about the need for the optimism of the will to dialectically go with the pessimism of the intellect is a fitting way to introduce the Swiss sociologist Jean Ziegler, the extraordinary subject of this astute documentary. Not exactly a universally loved figure in his native Switzerland where bankers have taken him to court for his militant criticism of bank secrecy and related (Nazi) crimes, Ziegler is more popular among the people and nations that have fought against capitalism and continue to do so against all odds (and against the tides of history it would appear). Born in an affluent family of German Swiss Calvinists, the young Ziegler soon found the Swiss Alps to be a rather claustrophobic environment and moved to the more vibrant French capital at the end of the 50s. There he published his first writings in Les Temps Modernes, the journal Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty edited. But it was his encounter with Ernesto Guevara in Geneva that convinced Ziegler that the only life worth living was one dedicated to the anti-imperialist struggle, which the Swiss professor was advised by the Argentinian revolutionary to conduct in “the brain of the monster,” Che's own definition of Switzerland. Not the easiest or necessarily pleasant of tasks in a country (un)known for its xenophobic hygiene and appalling women's rights record (the last Swiss jurisdiction to grant women the right to vote did so in 1991—28 years after Iran, 26 after Afghanistan—a partial “universal” suffrage having been previously approved only in 1971). A documentary that critically embraces its extraordinary character without being passively reverential, Wadimoff's captures Zielger in his many roles (subversive diplomat, defender of the Cuban Revolution, lecturer, domestic dissident) without shying away from his very human inconsistencies. What emerges from the documentary is a man committed to his beliefs, a rhetorical genius and charming orator whose life has been spent at the service of the voiceless not without a touch of almost childish mischief: the very precondition for every revolutionary act.