Perhaps the ultimate measure of a film festival's success is how its program looks not just before and during the event, but also after its culmination, once the swirl of hype, expectation, and kneejerk reactions has subsided and the films must speak for themselves. Though it's too early to talk of the true test of time, a look back at Locarno's lineups over the last few years reveals a collection of films that have pushed cinema in new directions, brought established directors their due and put emerging ones on the map, and provided hope that experimentation can be rewarded. With Cannes having turned its back on the challenging or potentially confounding in favor of more immediate, market-friendly fare, Locarno has swiftly taken up the slack, offering an increasingly unique platform where the likes of Chantal Akerman, Pedro Costa, and Hong Sang-soo can still happily thrive. While its lineups aren't without more predictable festival fare and its risk-taking automatically means that some gambles work better than others, the sheer height of Locarno's peaks does more than enough to distract from its valleys.
Locarno also has a deserved reputation for nurturing talent, a strategy handsomely rewarded this year in the form of Hermia & Helena, by Argentinean filmmaker Matías Piñeiro, whose They All Lie and The Princess of France both screened at previous editions of the festival. The film follows Camila (Agustina Muñoz), whose moved to New York City to attend a residency to help her complete the translation of A Midsummer Night's Dream that she hopes to bring to the stage back in Buenos Aires. As her friend, Carmen (María Villar), recently completed the same program, Camila is able to replace her both in the residency apartment and the affections of the other fellows, even as she starts carving out new relationships of her own.
Throughout Hermia & Helena, hands clasp door handles and banisters, postcards are received, and messages are passed on, all as the dialogue leaps back and forth between English and Spanish and the treetops of the Argentinean capital dissolve beguilingly into the stanchions of the Brooklyn Bridge. For Piñeiro, it seems like the same captivating game as always: overlapping lives and loves, rapidly delivered dialogue, and carefully controlled ellipses and jumps in time, with Shakespeare still never far from the picture. But winter in New York also triggers new, previously unknown feelings within Camila: the sobering discovery that all the jocular toing and froing means dislocation nonetheless. As she grows distant from her friends and boyfriend back in Buenos Aires and new encounters don't go according to plan, she sets out in search of another, more deep-seated connection, if that wasn't indeed the plan from the outset, as suggested by the film's flashbacks.
Piñeiro's cinema has traditionally engaged the heart by way of the head, which is why the film's shift from cerebral game-playing into pure, beautifully understated emotion is both unexpected and hugely impressive, the sign of a director realizing, much like his protagonist, that trying to find a new status quo is at some point unavoidable. Camila's sustained encounter with a figure from her past (Dan Sallitt) is perfectly moderated, uncharacteristically pared down, and exquisitely sad, while also giving Muñoz's immense acting talent the perfect showcase. It's no exaggeration to say that the subtlety of her performance bears comparison with the work of gifted Ozu actress Setsuko Hara, to whom Piñeiro not coincidentally dedicates the film. Just as Camila's translation remains a work in progress, Hermia & Helena suggests that Piñeiro's own sideways renditions of Shakespeare could continue indefinitely.
Perhaps the ultimate measure of a film festival's success is how its program looks not just before and during the event, but also after its culmination.
The other undisputed highpoint of the festival's opening days came courtesy of another Locarno veteran, with director João Pedro Rodrigues, following 2012's The Last Time I Saw Macao, returning to the competition with The Ornithologist. Rodrigues's fifth feature brings his unique sensibility to bear on the story of Saint Anthony of Padua, as the Portuguese director modernizes, fractures, and queers up the 13th-century cleric's journey to divinity with a blithe disregard for either respectability or historical fact. An ornithologist, Fernando (Paul Hamy), has set out into the wilderness of northern Portugal in search of rare black storks, with only a canoe, a tent, a pair of binoculars, and a tape recorder to aid his investigations. The birds he watches almost seem to return his gaze, exerting such a hypnotic pull that he manages to overlook the rapids up ahead, which turn over his canoe and knock him unconscious. He's rescued by a pair of tittering Chinese pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostela who've seemingly wandered from the path, but their apparent Christian generosity is just a mask for their desire for bondage and castration.
This, though, is only to be the first of many encounters that progressively pull Paul out of the present and into the past, with the sheer strangeness of The Ornithologist serving as a narrative motor: a mute shepherd boy with a penchant for skinny dipping, a band of brightly clad Mirandese-speaking pagans who work themselves into a ritualistic frenzy, bare-breasted Amazons on the hunt bearing modern rifles. Each of these bizarre episodes constantly bridges various moods and references, with eeriness giving way to awe, serenity to violence, the religious to the erotic, and the horror film to the western. Rodrigues's most impressive achievement is his ability to confer coherence on the most disparate of ideas, and the result is moment after moment of baffling, sensuous beauty: the sight of one of the Chinese pilgrims unable to stop herself from licking the other's wounded knee, a wander through a forest populated only by taxidermic specimens, the gentle insertion of a finger into a chest wound lubricated by blood.
In the hands of a lesser director, all of The Ornithologist's competing signs would likely shake themselves apart, but Rodrigues is in such total control that the journey is impossibly smooth. Perhaps the best analogy for his wonderfully singular gaze is that of all the countless birds on Fernando's journey keep looking back at him; theirs is a gaze that quietly upends standard perspectives and takes flight as it will.