It’s no wonder that film festivals are schizophrenic creatures, given the number of different functions they have to perform simultaneously. Each of the major international festivals must juggle their oft-conflicting duties as a showcase for local filmmaking talent, a glitzy red-carpet event for the host city, and an incisive snapshot of the current state of world cinema in order to keep the cultural politicians, commercial sponsors, and international film press on board. The considerable straddling involved here is perhaps one reason for the frequent “jack of all trades, master of none” feeling that emerges as a result.
For its part, Locarno does at least seem to have found a canny solution to this conundrum, farming out nearly the entire glamour shebang to put bums on sets at the vast screenings in the town’s central Piazza Grande, thus freeing up the competition to focus on the matter at hand: cinema. While this strategy did indeed yield the mouth-watering cinephile one-two punch of Matías Piñeiro and Lav Diaz on the first day, the steady stream of walkouts during both premiere screenings indicate that even Locarno’s juggling act has yet to be perfected.
It felt like a veritable stampede of people left the auditorium around two-thirds of the way into Piñeiro’s dizzyingly exuberant The Princess of France, his typically playful idea of repeating the same scene three times with different characters and different outcomes proving a bridge too far for many. Yet if you’re willing to play along with Piñeiro’s games, getting lost in his cheerful labyrinths of shifting characters, romantic entanglements, and cultural references is sheer joy. This latest instalment in his ongoing Shakespeare project (following Rosalinda and Viola) revolves around a theater troupe reassembling one year after their last Shakespeare production to adapt it for radio, the number of possible amorous couplings between the two men and five women having grown exponentially in the interim.
Dialogue declaimed at thrilling speed, perpetual romantic indecision and graceful, gliding camerawork once again ensue, though what’s most impressive about the film is how perfectly it reconciles familiarity and innovation. Whether the opening wide shot of a football game descending into choreographed silliness, the giddy reframing of Shakespeare as rap, or the oddly audience disturbing third-act shift into the realm of conditionality, these new additions to Piñeiro’s world remain true to its previous nature while deepening and enriching it yet further. In perhaps the film’s most exhilarating scene, three characters at an art museum give a rapid-fire breakdown of the work of forgotten French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau, their delivery channelling Piñeiro’s by now established dialogue style so perfectly that you could shut your eyes and think they were spouting Shakespeare.
While Diaz isn’t perhaps as willing to tamper with his box of tricks, there can be no doubt that From What Is Before finds him at the height of his powers. As always, the sheer duration of the film, clocking in at a hefty 338 minutes, is at once an endurance test of sorts and an opportunity to create a level of narrative and visual detail that pays ever-greater dividends as the film progresses. Opening in a rural area of the Philippines, the film spends its first hour and a half or so leisurely exploring the terrain and the rites of the people that inhabit the entirely timeless 1970 setting with an almost neorealistic respect for natural duration, while gradually homing in on the village that will later form the scene of the drama. In time, characters emerge from the flow of images: a saintly healer looking after her mentally handicapped sister; a rancher with an adopted nephew; a local drunk and alcohol dealer; a suspiciously inquisitive seller of mosquito nets and rugs. And as the film unfolds, they slowly, yet inexorably, become caught in the entirely unseen crossfire between the government soldiers and rebel forces seeking to take control of the area.
Suggesting a microhistorical examination of the early-’70s adoption of martial law in the Philippines filtered through the prism of a 19th-century novel of ideas, the film marries the specific to the universal in truly masterful fashion, the villagers’ collective, inescapable sins finding their savage echo in the bloodthirsty conflict raging around them, kept pointedly out of view until the final image. And Diaz is even able to find moments of quiet beauty right in the eye of this slowly building vortex of religion, politics, and morality: a stricken man on the shoreline, his grief seemingly directed at the waves themselves; a makeshift funeral pyre slowly floating downstream; and a man comforting his sobbing child in the forest as the soft rain drowns his cries.
After reaching such lofty heights on its very first day, it was probably inevitable the competition would return to Earth sooner or later, the only question being the size of the thud. This thud duly arrived in the form of Eugène Green’s La Sapienza, only to reverberate even louder from then on in, with the inclusion of Lucie Borteleau’s debut, Fidelio, L’Odyssée d’Alice, and Fernand Melgar’s L’Abri in the main competition being questionable at best.
La Sapienza is lazily content to draw on the exact same set of formal strategies (constant cuts back and forth between frontal shots, stylised movement, dialogue delivered with the monotony of a language learning tape) employed to more fitting effect in The Portuguese Nun, with all the studied artificiality just serving to inflate this already over-determined story of chance encounters, architectural pontificating, and converging destinies to the point of ridiculousness. And the one saving grace of Fidelio are the striking images it throws up of life at sea on the Fidelio, the creaking old freighter where our unrealistically attractive heroine Alice (Ariane Labed) gets a new position as a feisty mechanic. Needless to say, this is the sort of plausibility-challenging film where the captain of the ship just so happens to be Alice’s ex-lover; she’s able to breezily sift through her deceased predecessor’s possessions undisturbed; and this apparently strong woman in control of her sexuality appears oddly pleased at getting promoted for fucking the captain.
L’Abri is entirely honourable in its social intentions, effectively, if at points redundantly, portraying the desperate nightly struggle among Lausanne’s immigrant homeless to get one of the only 50 places available at an emergency shelter. Yet while the film deserves credit for shining a spotlight on issues in desperate need of attention in Switzerland, it’s hard to see what such a formally basic documentary is doing in the Locarno competition, where Leviathan and What Now? Remind Me? have of late been the order of the day. More evidence, it would seem, that the juggling act still needs some work.
It was actually in the “Signs of Life” sidebar, itself a new initiative to better anchor the low-key and the experimental within the festival, that I made my first real discovery. Young American filmmaker Benjamin Crotty is based in France, with his debut feature Fort Buchanan already providing ample evidence of his interesting, original hybrid sensibility. The film touches down at some unusual midway point between the typical garrulousness of French cinema and the lo-fi charms of American mumblecore, and as such it’s no coincidence that you can’t quite shake that feeling that it takes place in the U.S., despite its French setting and entirely French dialogue.
Set at the titular army base, the film centers on the travails of the fragile, frigid Roger, whose decorated husband, Frank, is on a mission to Djibouti, leaving Roger alone to deal with their rebellious daughter, Roxy, whose buxom, earthy charms are a constant temptation for the base’s gaggle of sexually frustrated army wives. Crotty’s deliciously queer utopia has distinct shades of Monty Python’s Castle Anthrax, drawing on sharp one-liners, clever sight gags, and well-placed slapstick to frequently uproarious effect. Yet his talents do not end there, as his way of framing dialogue around his actors’ faces, unusual compositions rendered in colourful 16mm, and occasional forays into video graphics also give the film a pleasing formal texture. And while the film does stumble somewhat in the third act, briefly leaving the main characters behind as if bored by its own comparative conventionality, this final digression tellingly contains some of the oddest, most striking images in the entire film, as it wordlessly watches a solitary man in the forest climbing to the top of the tallest tree. Once Crotty has a better grasp of his somewhat divergent experimental, comedic, and narrative urges, they’ll be really no stopping him.
The Locarno Film Festival ran from August 6—16.
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