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State of the Festival: Locarno 2021

Returning after a pandemic hiatus with the second artistic director in 3 years, the once-essential bastion of art cinema may be in crisis.
Daniel Kasman
For years Locarno has been an essential player among the major film festivals, a place where one could count on watching uncompromising works of filmmaking, curation, and film history. It has served as a vital venue for international art cinema with little of the wider publicity needs and industry compromise imposed by media-courting festivals like Cannes and Venice. Highlights of recent Golden Leopard winners bear this out: Pedro Costa, Wang Bing, Hong Sang-soo, Lav Diaz. (Like any competitive festival, Locarno has also awarded its share of duds, juries being an unreliable variable.) Along its main competition, it also featured multi-film profiles and large retrospectives, as well as an important section of more cinematically adventurous works that balanced the iconic, hugely attended outdoor screenings in the Piazza Grande. 
Now, it seems possible that the festival is in trouble. Like so many film events, it has struggled through the pandemic, effectively canceling its 2020 edition. The 2021 festival resumes anew: Not only returning to a physical event in the mountains of Switzerland near Italy, but also with another new artistic director at its helm, Giona A.Nazzaro. This comes after the last proper edition, in 2019, also featured a new director, Lili Hinstin. She barely had time to try anything different before the pandemic hit, followed by this sudden changeover. The repercussions of these two factors this year were clear: A tepid competition missing not only bigger names but, most importantly, strong, declarative works of cinema at a time when the art is stumbling through a global crisis. The adventurous section has been discreetly minimized, folded into shorts programs and effectively eliminated. With these showcase programs hobbled or absent, it was difficult to see what has been added rather than removed. It is also difficult to know where the responsibility lies, whether with the programming or with what was available to program—or with both. But the general critical reception seemed to be one of confusion and disappointment. While attending an event that requires taking some degree of risk over one’s health, as well as risking the health of others, merely by traveling and sitting in the audience, the pandemic context forced hard questions about whether an event with such an underwhelming program was worth it. There were good films to be found, but they were not frequent and not up to the expected standard.
Normally it wouldn’t be a dispatch from Locarno without a report from the retrospective, always an impressive work of curation and, hosted in the GranRex cinema, one of the most comfortable and entrancing pocket worlds inside the festival. This year it is devoted to Italian director Alberto Lattuada. The choice is a bit of a conventional return to old guard auteurism after 2019’s general retrospective on Black cinema, but outside of Italy this prodigious director isn’t particularly known beyond his early collaboration with Fellini, Variety Lights (1950), and a few classics like The Overcoat (1952) and Mafioso (1962). Alas, this reputation may not change much after Locarno because only these and a handful of others at the festival were subtitled in English. Two rare exceptions were 1949’s The Mill on the Po, a restored, visually sumptuous epic of desperate class conflict in the 19th century Italian countryside; and La spiaggia (1954), about a sex worker vacationing incognito at a beachside resort, mixing il boom with Robert Altman’s group portraiture and Douglas Sirk’s social melodramas. It may risk an attitude of entitlement, but as an international festival doing all the work to put together such a series but not having the resources to allow it to “travel”—in the sense of visiting attendees learning from, being inspired by, and expanding awareness of this history—the presentation felt unfinished. And all the more so because Locarno is one of the few festivals that has bravely continued this tradition of insisting on the importance of showcasing cinema history in substance alongside premiering new work. The local audience of a festival should be its first concern, but nearly as important is to serve as an axis of cultural exchange, and that exchange cannot occur without significant resources devoted to making that exchange possible, encouraging it, and through that advocating for more such exchanges.
Official statements surrounding this edition have put an emphasis on genre-oriented and audience-friendly cinema. While it is worthy of applause to integrate exceptional mainstream filmmaking with art movies into a spectrum of what contemporary cinema can achieve, in an industry—and festival circuit in general—dominated by a hysterical emphasis on commercial viability and audience accessibility, this aim for an entire festival can only be seen an acquiescence to the status quo, rather than a genuine attempt to connect the dots between modes of storytelling and cross-pollinate audience interest and experience. In Locarno’s case, presenting more conventional films arguably is the function of the Piazza Grande screenings, which have to fill an open-air space of several thousand seats. (In 2017, the Piazza Grande screen appeared on the 20 Swiss franc note, a remarkable alignment of motivation, means, and goal.) This year the Piazza Grande did its requisite duty, showing films ranging from the opening selection of Netflix’s Beckett a little over a week before it is available to stream, and an audacious audience challenge with Gaspar Noé’s Vortex, to the beautiful animation Belle, from Mamoru Hosoda. Belle was a particular highlight of the grand vision and embracing expressiveness of commercial cinema, a complex heartbreaker about a teen girl rectifying struggles in her life by intertwining virtual and real selves, and a moving improvement on Spielberg’s under-appreciated Ready Player One
Other sections of the festival showcased more modest films, for better and for worse. One way of looking at the film festival world is that it is now so rife with conventions, tropes, and trends and films are more likely to circulate only within rather than escape it, that it has its own industrial aesthetic and storytelling standards, akin to the old studio systems. And in fact, one of the constant pleasures of Hollywood’s old system was how similar so many movies seemed. One after another, churned out by the dream factory, if it wasn’t by some idiosyncratic oddball like Hitchcock, Sternberg, or Wells, chances were everything washed together and stood out by such virtues as plumb role for a favorite actor, exceptional wit, unusual speed or spend, or a handful of well-made observations.
This kind of unambitious regularity allowed for a certain kind of modest but satisfying accomplishment, when the stars aligned, and the same could be said for Axelle Ropert’s Petite Solange. The story of a teen girl (Jade Springer) gradually becoming aware of a rift in her parents' marriage, and how this expands but at the same time darkens her consciousness and disrupts her heretofore happy life, Petite Solange never takes the rare risk of a child’s perspective, like Henry James’s What Maisie Knew or movies by Isilde Le Besco. Yet without grandstanding the film places all its emphasis purely and simply in the face and demeanor of its heroine. And indeed, Ropert and Springer evoke most beautifully the wincing tremors of sorrow and anger experienced by the young girl as she realizes there is not just one reality, that which she experiences, but many, and that those other worlds have the power to disrupt and forever alter her sense of the world and of self. Springer's is an exquisite and unshowy performance within a family that is quite normal, as is the film that tells its story. It is in the camera registering the thought, distraction, pain, and struggle in this young girl’s face that the film exceeds the bounds of regularity and becomes sweetly, sadly exceptional.
No One’s with the Calves is also a modest film owned by its singular performance of its lead actress, though one who lives within a world that is better and more fully evoked by its director, Sabrina Sarabi. It is about a young German woman, Christin (Saskia Rosendahl), stymied in her life and stranded in the limbo between fate and choice with her boyfriend Jan at his family farm, to which everyone but she is devoted to body and spirit. Her body and spirit, meanwhile, is barely contained by the short shorts and crop-top blouses she brazenly wears around the farm, a wanton expression of another kind of life she wishes she led, and perhaps still could. But her mother is missing; her father is a bitterly broken alcoholic; her best friend dreams of cheating on her husband; and Jan is so overworked that the only time he spends with her is in resentful jealousy. Whether Christin is casually promiscuous or merely seems that way to the scornful locals because of her bracing vitality and the openness of her sexuality is purposefully not clarified. Christin writhes, swigs schnapps, tries masturbating, has a tryst with a wind turbine repairman, and refuses to either embrace her farm life nor leap into the unknown of the city. Sarabi, adapting a novel of the same charmingly ungainly title evoking wayward obligations, allows the character to determine the story path: We see little of Jan's family or of farm life because she herself doesn’t care; the decision to wear her hair up or down, or the (first) envy and (then) fear evoked by her girlfriend’s unreturned messages, is of far greater importance than the daily requirements of a farm. She lives a life of fits and starts, and Rosendahl gives the role a full-bodied performance of great beauty and frustrated defiance as Christin navigates the freedom of movement allowed by the countryside and the quotidian rural entrapment felt at every turn.
There is little community surrounding Christin who could support or help her relieve her desperation. This is not true of the Spanish city of Elche, which in Chema García Ibarra’s Espíritu sagrado (The Sacred Spirit) hosts an idiosyncratic, oddball group of lonely souls who bond over their shared UFO enthusiasm and belief in secret saviors from above. One of the most compelling premieres in Locarno’s competition, García Ibarra’s first feature is a deceptively deadpan story of the disturbing bleed between a need for community, wild beliefs, and violent crime. It begins with the revelation of one of a set of twin girls gone missing in Elche, a sorrow that introduces us to the girl’s sad-faced uncle, whose mother is an aging clairvoyant and who belongs to the local chapter of extraterrestrial true believers. Shot on film in cheerful pastels and with an eye towards comically droll casting—particularly the sympathetically dumpy Nacho Fernández as the uncle, and the doe-eyed Llum Arques as the forlorn remaining twin—García Ibarra seems to be offering a darkly humorous, slightly off-kilter portrait reminiscent of Aki Kaurismaki, here focused on the strange groups that form in cities from sad, searching folk. But sinister hints constantly tinge the seeming cuteness and eventually Espíritu sagrado tips its hand and we see how immersion into wild, ungrounded beliefs fogs people’s reality in ways that can be exploited with very real consequences. In a new era of proliferating misinformation and desperate conspiracies, García Ibarra has done something very sly, starting his film as a kind of compassionate comedy of human strangeness but then revealing that such oddity can lead to terrible inhumanity.
On the piazza also came a welcome dose of lurid commercial moviemaking in the form of Stefan Ruzowitzky’s hybrid forgotten man drama and serial killer detective picture, Hinterland. Continuing in that mostly abandoned track of imaginatively artificial computer effects pioneered by Eric Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke, the best of the film imagines post-First World War Vienna as an alienating flat landscape with buildings and perspectives wildly tilting in the background. In this modernist milieu enters Perg (Murathan Muslu), a returning prisoner of war written off as dead and forgotten by his wife and colleagues. The capital of Austria, now a republic sans emperor, teems with a bitter mixture of human war detritus and a populace that wants nothing to do with the recent conflict. This angry, traumatized milieu rendered in weird production flourishes could likely have been enough of a movie, but there’s more: an ahistorical, Se7en-like series of horrendous murders. The victims turn out to be veterans, and the high-minded and soft-handed police enlist our damaged Perg, who before the war was a star investigator. The film thereafter prioritizes detection over veteran affairs, and the deeper into the detective work we get the less of the film’s brazen special effects artifices seem to be employed; closer, too, we get to heritage TV series, which revel in a combination of thrifty period nostalgia and charismatic detectives. A lurching finale in St. Stephens belfry fumbles the tensions but ties some nice bows around guilt, complicity, brotherhood, and the unavoidable tether between those who went to fight and those who stayed home. In keeping with the film’s conflicted being, a detective tells Perg he’ll see him next Monday—perhaps for the next episode.
A decade or so after the era in which Hinterland is set, Hollywood was outputting a particular kind of auteur film, like those by Leo McCarey and Jacques Tourneur (both subjects of recent Locarno retrospectives), whose off-hand style exemplifies some of the best interplay between industrial cultural production and personal artistry. The closest we may get to this kind of American cinema at Locarno unexpectedly comes from Indonesia: Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, directed by the mono-moniker director Edwin and which deservedly won the Golden Leopard. Buoyant with an easygoing storytelling style that has no problem amalgamating a tale of impotence, fisticuffs, love, murder, imprisonment, and more fisticuffs as if all are part and parcel with everyday life, Edwin's film was a charming highlight in the main competition. It helps that the film’s two leads, Marthino Lio and Ladya Cheryl, who meet-cute by brawling at a construction site for several exuberantly unbroken minutes, are easefully charismatic and instantly iconic, giving their characters’ swagger, brawn—in the films many excellent fight sequences—and a shared electricity that is delightfully physical. Told in another register, this tale and its subtly political undercurrent, in which the Suharto era in which it is set somewhat resembles the Indonesia of today, could have been an extended Lav Diaz national epic, like Norte, the End of History.
It is precisely Diaz’s type of daring cinema that is most missed from this year’s festival. (It did admirably premiere Joaquin Pinto and Nuno Leonel’s triptych Pathos Ethos Logos, whose extreme length, each episode clocking over three hours, meant I could only catch the first part.) The cinematically bold but dubiously exploitative Medea was a rare dose of forceful filmmaking and risky programming. The first film in ten years from Russian director Alexander Zeldovich (Moscow, Target), the Greek legend is given a modern adaptation by featuring a rangy, tattoo-covered Russian woman (Tinatin Dalakishvili) killing her corrupt cop brother so she can live blissfully abroad in Israel with her married millionaire lover (Evgeniy Tsyganov). Once betrayed by his false promises, this previously devout and loyal young mother wanders the unknown city and landscape, experimenting sexually with a Banksy imitator, a descendent of Jerusalem royalty, a clairvoyant Israeli intelligence officer, and a man who is, if not Satan, certainly a demon. The line between the woman's dazed dislocation after the exposure of her existential precarity and the filmmaker reveling in the character and the actress’s sexuality was a constant uncomfortable and ambiguous tension. In keeping with the better side of Medea's vision and greatly helping carry it along with a grand spiritual sweep was a tremendous score by first-time film composer Alexey Retinsky, whose expressions were in keeping with Zeldovich’s similarly big, strange technique.
The other film in competition that kept the torch for unabashed strangeness was Abel Ferrara’s Zeros and Ones, which was awarded Best Director. A bravely primal film, more urgent tone poem than dramatic anything, it follows some kind of soldier-mercenary, played by Ethan Hawke, around a nocturnal pandemic-era Rome in which masked strangers, hand sanitizer, and crepuscular photography by Sean Price Williams casts a despairing, dystopian vision. The present immediately looks like the future, and that future a nightmare. The story is as murky as the images: there’s a twin brother of this soldier, a long-haired, wild-eyed revolutionary jailed by some authorities; there’s the brother’s partner and their young child, living in Rome. And there’s the soldier’s mission, which seems a mash of terrorist manhunting, investigating the fate of his brother, relentless videography—though it seems impossible to discern if the soldier is recording or falsifying what he films—and, it being Ferrara, an oddball mix of religious questions and paranoid rants—though whether these belong to one brother or the other it is unclear, just as several scenes of explosions wracking churches around Rome seem to blur true possibility with visions. The style is rare kin with Michael Mann’s digital impressionism, and, in its spartan pandemic noir vibes, with B-noir specialist Joseph H. Lewis. Ragged-edged by its dark, hallucinatory nature, and teetering on the fine line between narrative incomprehensibility and purely intuitive cinematic poetry, the film casts an unshakable spell of fearful, furtive questing within a suffocating, inescapable and relentless night of crumbling faith in morality and certainty. 
Another strong instance of fully conceived art cinema could be found in the ambitious decade-spanning drama of a Sichuanese theatrical troupe, A New Old Play, winner of the Jury Prize. The first fictional feature by Chinese artist Qiu Jiongjiong, it feels at once expansive and constrictive, as it spans epochs of his nation’s history yet is brought to life within the limitations of a small movie set. The scope—inspired by Qiu’s own theatrical family—is impressive, starting with the troupes’s creation during the chaotic period of the 1920s before passing through war with Japan, the nationalist’s struggles, war with the ascendant communists, a trip to Taiwan, and a gradual dissolution of the players before Mao’s secured reign. For such an expansive tale, Qiu shows himself both cagey and inventive: The film, which frames its history as a reflection by its aged leader on the cusp of being given a drink of forgetfulness and pulled down to hell by demons, is presented in high artifice, with charmingly theatrical sets representing non-theatrical spaces, clearly lit on sound stages, and frequently shot frontally, like dioramas. With its sprawling cast of characters, including their pock-marked founder, a mute hunchback, an unbreakable gang of women, and other various trainers, singers, youths, and theatrical hangers-on, its frames have the playful, teeming quality of Wes Anderson’s cinema. Only, this story isn’t whimsical, despite its not infrequent humor, but rather follows with an endearing, melancholic manner the always-almost-failing fate of the troupe. Qiu has made a cleverly contained existential epic, an ode to the innate persistence of workers, artists, and people in the face of futility and poor fortune. It is a wonder the film carries it off with an empathetic sparkle—there must be some purpose to art, to life, after all. 
One could say something similar about the state of cinema, increasingly fragile as the audience’s attention shifts with the tides of technology and money. It is up to Locarno, and festivals like it, to serve as a rallying cry to celebrate cinema at its finest and nurture an event where audiences are encouraged to encounter, be challenged by, and delight in the best the art has to offer. That future of that art is by no means ensured, and it needs events like Locarno to hold themselves to standards of excellence to sustain its beautiful vitality.

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