Sundance has the clout, Cannes the razzle-dazzle. Toronto’s epic film selection is world class. But ask any serious cinephile which of the world’s grand festival institutions deserves your undivided attention, their answer more often than not would be Locarno. Since its inception in 1946, the annual Swiss film festival is a haven for innovative new works by veteran and freshman auteurs alike. The Golden Leopard, Locarno’s equivalent of the Palme D’or, has gone to a diverse group of winners that includes both Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones and Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then.
Sensing an egregious lack of this progressive programing spirit in their Southern California megalopolis, film critics Jordan Cronk and Robert Koehler have masterminded a curatorial anecdote: Locarno in Los Angeles. Running April 21 through April 23, the event will showcase 10 features and a number of shorts that screened at last year’s Locarno Film Festival and haven’t yet been granted a Los Angeles premiere. Two panels on film exhibition and festival programming will also take place.
Herein lies the crucial mission of Locarno in Los Angeles and its collaborative partner, the monthly experimental screening series Acropolis Cinema. “We want to raise awareness of Locarno in the U.S., particularly Los Angeles, and to bring a very unique brand of art cinema to a city that has consistently failed to accommodate such forward thinking films,” Cronk says. There’s a sense of urgency in his response, and rightfully so. In a town where repertory houses like The New Beverly and CineFamily relentlessly focus their programming on genre fare and foreign arthouse releases, category-defying experimental films are often ignored completely.
Ultimately, according to Cronk this is a battle for access: “The simple fact that all but one or two of the films programmed—and a dozen others we wanted to play—have no plans to open in Los Angeles is pretty outrageous when considering the city’s ostensible identity as a haven for cinema and the arts.” With this in mind, Locarno in Los Angeles feels like a mandate of sorts in favor of adventurous movie going. Theo Anthony’s Rat Film, Eduardo Williams’ The Human Surge, and Angela Schanelec’s The Dreamed Path each embodies this bold initiative, challenging audiences to see the world with fresh eyes while breaking down boundaries of conventional narrative and documentary storytelling.
But the festival certainly isn’t wanting for whimsy. Matías Piñeiro’s breezy Hermia & Helena, the opening night selection, superimposes Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream over a bi-national anti-romance that jumps between Buenos Aires and New York City. In the early goings, heroine Camilla (Agustina Muñoz) sums up the film’s empowering acceptance of life’s subtle inconsistencies: “Anyway, I’m always up for a contradiction.” Piñeiro’s previous two efforts—the great Viola and The Princess of France—favor an avant-garde approach to structure and form, full of gaps and temporal fractures. At first, his latest feels like a dance with more mainstream conventions, but these romantic comedy tropes are consistently subverted through eclectic stylistic visual choices (an X-ray image of swaying trees interrupts a reunion between two lovers), and by the prickly characters themselves, who refuse to settle into any recognizable groove. After all, this is a film of nomads, and their desire to continue moving keeps us on our toes.
If Hermia & Helena sees the world as a fleeting playground for wandering, good-natured spirits, All the Cities of the North remains permanently rooted in a particular time and place. Dane Komljen’s striking mood piece quietly strolls though the skeletal remains of an abandoned Communist-era Yugoslavian housing complex. Two men co-exist in seemingly perfect harmony, sleeping beside one another, cooking food by campfire, and exploring the overgrown landscape without ever uttering a word. Occasional voice-over segments lead to montages of faded pictures depicting grassroots settlements in Brasilia and Lagos, which ultimately provide telling historical context not to mention philosophical parallels with Komljen’s own silent ciphers.
Perfectly in step with the pulse of a particular environment, All the Cities of the North is ancestor to both Thoreau’s Walden and Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It has little use for words, communicating instead through raindrops, croaking frogs, and crackling embers. We see and feel this place as the men do—from a vantage point of intimacy and solitude that transcends historical cycles and political interference. Many scenes feel resurrected from an ongoing dream with no end in sight, like the soulful underwater night vision ballet performed by a trio of skinny dippers.
Yuri Ancarani’s The Challenge offers a different kind of sensory experience, exploring the 4,000-year-old tradition of falconry through a glistening ornate lens. By gold-plated plane, motorcycle, and Lamborghini, various Arab aristocrats and their hooded birds of prey converge on Qatar’s epic desert landscape littered with rolling sand dunes. This world of masculine contests and showmanship, lavish displays of power and prowess, perpetually flirts with the chaos of nature unleashed. In the final sequence, which features extended aerial footage from one falcon’s perspective, Ancarani visualizes what his subjects yearn for so thoroughly: to experience primal dominance without any danger of defeat.
Patriarchy defines nearly every relationship in The Challenge, but the same can’t be said of Milagros Mumenthaler’s The Idea of a Lake. Quietly resonant, this drama addresses the impact of a father’s absence on his family, jumping between time periods and settings to mirror the fabled haziness of memory. Pregnant with her first child, photographer Inés (Malena Moiron) can’t stop thinking about past visits to her family’s lakeside vacation home tucked far away in Argentina’s mountainous south. The majestic landscape has played witness to decades of personal moments that range from slapstick and fantastical to ominous. Mumenthaler deftly balances such jarring shifts in tone, making them each part of a larger psychological web that never demands untangling. Instead of trying to resolve potential lingering traumas, the film makes peace with their existence.
Locarno in Los Angeles closes with Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts, a lush full screen period piece that evokes the haunting visual style of Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja. Set almost entirely in a seaside Romanian sanitarium in the mid-1930s, the film follows a young Jewish man named Emmanuel (Lucian Teodor Rus) who is fitted with a body cast due to an extreme case of rheumatism. The hospital’s lengthy corridors and operating rooms are shot entirely in medium and long shots, creating a sense of detachment. Yet the characters themselves are vibrant, even bombastic at times, which complicates certain crucial themes that revolve around institutional failure.
Hitler’s fanaticism lies on the horizon, but anti-Semitism is very much ingrained in Emmanuel’s everyday life, and he chooses to skewer it through comedic outbursts and heated debate. His spirit never subsides even when his health continues to decline, providing something like hope in a national cinema known for its crushing cynicism. “Live so that death may never take you by surprise,” he says, quoting Marcus Aurelius with defiant passion. While Scarred Hearts willfully embraces these sentiments, it also respects the reality of extended suffering, and the profound affect it can have on an individual mind and the nation at large. The crushing last scene ends with a quote that also evokes the worthy mission of Locarno in Los Angeles itself: “Be brave.”