Locarno film festival

Geoff Andrew reports from Locarno, the annual Swiss film festival that showcases international movies that venture beyond the mainstream

Locarno film festival
Outdoors now: an open-air screening at the Locarno Film Festival

Like Cannes, the Locarno International Film Festival celebrated its sixtieth anniversary this year. The Swiss event was inevitably less glitzy than its French counterpart, while its several competitions have always been more about discovering new talent than celebrating established auteurs. But that’s never prevented Locarno from proffering gems, and Frédéric Maire, in his second year as artistic director, proved true to an illustrious tradition, exemplified by this year’s ‘Retour à Locarno’ strand of past glories like the late Edward Yang’s ‘Taipei Story’ and Mike Leigh’s ‘Bleak Moments’, both of which still shine very brightly.

It was hard to resist the temptation to revisit more golden oldies, or indeed a retrospective devoted to Italian actresses (I limited myself to Claudia Cardinale in Valerio Zurlini’s ‘Girl with a Suitcase’) and a survey of recent cinema from the Near and Middle East, though I did catch the world premiere of ‘Words in the Wake of War’, a simple but intelligent and very effective documentary on Israel’s bombing of Lebanon last year. It’s the first film by Tunisian oud maestro Anouar Brahem [an oud is a stringed instrument similar to the lute]; since Locarno is primarily about discovery, debuts and second features are plentiful. Sadly, I missed the one new UK feature in competition – Jim Threapleton’s ‘Extraordinary Rendition’, about the CIA’s illegal transporting of suspected ‘terrorists’ to countries that allow torture.

European movies loomed large. There were disappointments from Spain (‘Thieves’), Germany (‘Sooner or Later’), Austria (the sporadically rewarding ‘Free to Leave’), and Italy (the uneven boxing drama ‘Beyond the Ropes’). Hungary, however, provided something of a stunner with ‘Milky Way’, in which Benedek Fliegauf deploys a static ’Scope camera and subtly heightened sound to present ten memorably beautiful single-take landscape shots through which human figures pass… amusingly, sadly, a little mysteriously, as if they (or we the observers) were aliens. France, too, came up trumps with two very different movies. Samuel Benchetrit’s ‘I Always Wanted to Be a Gangster’ offers several stories connected not so much by crime as by a remote diner through which all the characters pass; a dry, stylish, black-and-white comedy, it’s reminiscent of Belgian movies like ‘Aaltra’. Philippe Ramos’ ‘Captain Ahab’ also uses clearly defined chapters to propose a backstory for Melville’s famous protagonist, as related by a handful of people whose paths he crossed, from his dad to Starbuck from ‘Moby Dick’. A rewarding response to the problem of shedding fresh light on one of literature’s greatest leviathans, it’s provocative yet playful, and wisely acknowledges the impossibility of the task it’s taken on.

The French films display a certain fascination with American culture. Locarno isn’t known for its American movies, but does venture beyond the mainstream. George Ratliff’s ‘Joshua’ may be a studio movie, but initially succeeds in evoking the mindset of the gifted nine-year-old son of a well-to-do family that doesn’t even realise how dysfunctional it is; sadly, as the film proceeds, it comes on like a half-hearted horror thriller.

‘Loren Cass’, by 25-year-old Chris Fuller, is a genuine indie: an elliptical, eccentric, grungy low-budget portrait of growing up in a racially polarised Florida in the late ’90s. Against the odds, it works. But even more out there, amazingly, is Anthony Hopkins’ second feature as a director. A semi-satirical reverie about an elderly Hollywood screenwriter increasingly unable to distinguish between reality and… well, other stuff, it’s a bracingly inventive and defiantly non-mainstream experiment: think Altman’s hallucinatory desert movies crossed with ’70s Roeg, recent Ruiz and some very welcome humour, and you’re halfway there. It’ll divide people, but I loved its sheer devil-may-care audacity.




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