It might be every major film festival's claim to take over its host city, but for the 11 days over which the 66th Locarno Film Festival took place, the Swiss city was a colony of leopards. You couldn't go anywhere, it seemed, without absorbing the sheer extent to which the place had been rebranded with the gold-and-black spotted cat, all the way down to the leopard-print sewing machine that sat in the window of a shop I passed on my way to press screenings every morning. The pardo, as the Italians name it, is a seemingly arbitrary choice for a festival mascot, but Januzzi Smith's design and marketing strategy goes to show how far something simple can be taken to breed an infectious feeling of community.
The 66th edition of Locarno was the first under artistic director Carlo Chatrian, who's continued the festival's delicate balance between high-profile films and smaller experimental works. Among those honored by the festival were Sir Christopher Lee, Werner Herzog, Jacqueline Bisset, Victoria Abril, and Douglas Trumbull. As evidence of the enthusiasm with which locals and international visitors alike took to the films on offer, meanwhile, the speed with which an extra, popular-demand screening of Marc Bauder's Master of the Universe sold out is a good example. As one of the last few to nab a seat for the early-morning Tuesday showing of this riveting insider-view documentary about a German banker, I couldn't help but wonder what the Swiss do for a living.
The horizontal diversity on display at Locarno this year was matched by a vertical gradient in quality. I saw the best film of the year there, and also the worst. The less column space given to Quentin Dupieux's Wrong Cops the better, while I was so enthralled by Albert Serra's Story of My Death that I saw it three times in four days. Billed as the film in which Casanova (Vincenç Altaió) meets Dracula (Eliseu Huertas), Serra's slow-burn 150-minute romp depicts in enchanting natural light the revolutionary shift from the Enlightenment to irrationalism. Broadly symbolic, the film is also detailed enough that we can see particles of dust move through the air; it's as if the very atmosphere is charged with transition.
While Serra's film was the deserving recipient of the top prize, the Golden Leopard, Lois Patiño won the Best Emerging Director Award following the world premiere of his feature-length debut, Costa da Morte. Named after the Galician coastline on which it was filmed, this essay film flattens both history and landscape with some wonderful digital photography. Midway through, it pays brief homage to James Benning's Casting a Glance (2007) with a becalming sequence in which the water levels of a canal go up and down and up again. Elsewhere, Zhengfan Yang's Distant also engaged with landscape, with over 13 fixed-camera compositions in which, to wry effect, far-off characters interact with their surroundings. Also Benningian in degrees, Yang's feature debut held me in its grip whenever I wasn't asleep—a double-edged confession that says more about my levels of stamina than it does the film itself.
Competing against Costa da Morte and Distant in the festival's Cineasti del presente strand was Alexander Carver and Daniel Schmidt's The Unity of All Things, a bizarre, gentle, and lyrical meld of sci-fi, incest, and pantheism whose press screenings caused more walkouts in its first 10 minutes than any other. Almost parodic in its voiceover's polysyllabic mumbo jumbo, the film also demonstrates how irrationally beautiful something can be when shot and scored well: Matthew Arkell and Aaron David Ross's musical accompaniment (under the name of Gatekeeper) might have been the only thing that kept me in the auditorium, but I was happy to allow the film's overall weird charms to wash over me. (In the end, Costa da Morte, Distant, and The Unity of All Things all lost out to Manakamana, the latest product of the same Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab that brought us Leviathan last year; it's the one film I regret missing.)
Two other films, both world premieres in a sub-section of the Fuori concorso strand, had excellent soundtracks. The first was Raya Martin's How to Disappear Completely; it isn't half as provocative as its director presumably wishes it to be, but it does have intermittent energy whenever it employs music from Filipino electronica artist Eyedress. The second was El Futuro, Luis López Carrasco's 67-minute ode to the short-lived optimism that followed a socialist victory in Spain's 1982 general election. From start to almost finish (its final reel is silent), the film introduced me to a fine selection of early '80s pop and punk tracks by the likes of Aviador Dro, Beirut la Noche, and Linear Movement.
El Futuro was among the top three films I saw at Locarno. Somewhere close to that, as I have written elsewhere, was The Green Serpent: Of Vodka, Men and Distilled Dreams, a 20-minute Swiss-Russian co-production by Swiss filmmaker Benny Jaberg. Watching this documentary in an uncomfortably stuffy auditorium packed to capacity, I was the one laughing loudest, two rows from the front, at the hilarity with which Jaberg depicts the horrors and joys that accompany a vodka binge. Seeing The Green Serpent in a room full of others (though whether they were sweating and laughing as much as I was is another matter) reminded me of the irreplaceable buzz that permeates cinema-going. Most remarkable about this particular sell-out screening, though, was the fact that it was a rapid-fire triple bill of shorts. This capacity, to bring people together in one place for a single purpose, has—as I noted in a vox pop video for festival sponsor UBS last week—political potential. And in Locarno, for 11 days at least, anything seemed possible.
The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 7—17.