This year’s Locarno Film Festival displayed a peculiar combination of world cinema classics and fresh Hollywood hits in a dramatic Swiss setting
The Locarno International Film Festival, although having just celebrated its own 68th year, now plays a bit like the Sundance. Taking place in a beautiful and remote mountainous summertime setting, its focus is European independent films. It makes a conscious effort to focus on lower profile films that are unlikely to win mainstream awards – unlike, perhaps, festivals in Venice and Toronto (not to mention, in New York and Telluride) that begin in about a month.
Locarno is mostly about art house films that are trying to establish audiences in the present and not striving for a particular future glory. The films are made to challenge, and are somewhat obscure, yet the festival is not completely immune from Hollywood buzz. Films such as Southpaw and the European premiere of Trainwreck made for a bit of an uneven but interesting programme.
Over the four middle days of the festival, of which I attended, the most interesting films I saw included Schneider vs Bax from Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam (Borgman, 2013). This was a Coens/Tarantino-like film about a day in the life of two hit men hired to take out each other. A dark comedy, Warmerdam mixes pathos and cleverness with a sense of threat and silliness. It’s a fun watch if you can accept that the characters’ actions are not convincing.
Another one of my film selections was Chant d’hiver (Winter Song) from 81-year-old, France-based, Georgian director Otar Issoeliani (Favorites of the Moon, 1984). It’s a lengthy but often enjoyable film of vignettes, beginning around the time of the French Revolution when a baron who is about to be beheaded insists on facing the guillotine while continuing to smoke his pipe. The film eventually settles into contemporary Paris and introduces us to a world that incorporates an old “sophisticated” arms dealer, roller-skating 20-something hat thieves, corrupt bureaucrats and strange older men. It becomes a kind of a mix between comedic Woody Allen and the work of droll Swedish auteur, Roy Andersson.
James White, an American indie that previously played at Sundance, is directed by Josh Mond, who produced Antonio Campos’ uncomfortably riveting Simon Killer which has a similar structure and feel as this one. The film follows a 20-something Manhattanite (Chris Abbot), tortured by an unexplained inner turmoil that is hardly helped by the condition of his dying mother (Cynthia Nixon). The vérité style at first seems disarmingly too much like Simon Killer, yet this film veers into a more sympathetic – still uncomfortable – character portrayal, as Abbot’s self-destructive soul is helpless in the face of his mother’s digression towards a horrible death.
There is also a splash of commercial world cinema at Locarno, mostly to be seen at night in the Piazza Grande, the main square in Locarno, which seats a remarkable 8,000. The screen is huge, the sound impeccable, the Piazza gorgeous; it could easily be named one of the most beautiful cinemas in the world (although only in business for two weeks annually).
This year, the European premiere of Trainwreck, the box office hit written and starring the comic Amy Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow, played at the Piazza on the mid-festival Saturday night. After sitting through uneven art house fare, it was surprising that the Hollywood comedy with a feminist bent was perhaps one of the freshest films showing.
Worth mentioning, too, the scheduling on the Piazza was odd at times. Starting at 9.30pm for a double feature, Trainwreck, for example, was followed by the unusual Austrian serial killer “redemption” film Jack (Elisabeth Scharang) – a well-made, peculiar psychological study that, well, had nothing to do with Trainwreck.
The highlight of the festival for me though, without a doubt, was the centrepiece screening of The Deer Hunter, also screened at the Piazza, as part of the Michael Cimino retrospective put on by the festival. The reclusive (both literally and cosmetic surgically) Cimino was in attendance at the film, which was absurdly placed as the second of a double-bill following a mediocre French comedy-drama, Floride, about an old man getting older. At 9.30pm, Cimino was in front of an audience of thousands and was presented with a lifetime achievement festival award, and he touchingly spoke to the huge crowd. Despite having to wait until after midnight to watch The Deer Hunter, when it was time, we were settled in for a true all-nighter to watch the three and a half hour masterpiece. Of course, 20 minutes in, it started pouring – torrentially. Some people left, but many hurried over to stand beneath the ancient awnings that circle the Piazza Grande.
And so, hundreds of us watched the film at awkward angles, peaking through the downpour, into the early hours of the morning. Despite the conditions, this brutal, intense, occasionally melodramatic tragedy looked and sounded as great as it ever had.
The dedication of the filmgoers to stay that late, in that rain, knowing that this was not something to miss, was as much of a display of l’amour du cinéma than I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness in an audience. And it made a trip to the Locarno Film Festival more than worth it.
Image from: http://theculturetrip.com/europe/switzerland/articles/switzerland-s-best-art-and-culture-events-spring-and-summer-2014/
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.