12 August 2022.
Did I mention last week that being at the Locarno film festival is like going back yearly to a homey, fun summer camp? It’s where you meet old acquaintances in the lovely surroundings of the Lago Maggiore and its velvety green mountains, except you get to see films all day and night and meet their makers. All that with incredibly precise and friendly organisation, but then we’re in Switzerland, after all.
In past years, when Locarno was considered ‘the Smallest of the Big festivals’ (Cannes, Venice and Berlin), there used to be really big stars attending, what the French call Monstres Sacrés, masters with established talents. Actors like Gerard Depardieu, Faye Dunaway, Alain Delon, Adrien Brody, Armin Mueller-Stahl, or directors such as Michael Camino of “The Deer Hunter” fame. Those were the days when movies told stories that fascinated and gripped you from beginning to end. When you sat in the dark and were swept away into another world, created with real talent.
But then, Locarno has had a long and winding history – the festival is actually 75 years old – with a reputation of being too left wing in the 1950s under the guidance of programmer Vinicio Beretta who brought in many works from Russia and the Eastern Bloc countries. In the 60s it used to show its films in the gardens of the Grand Hotel. It was only in 1971 that the screening venue was moved to the Piazza Grande by architect Livio Vacchini, under the tutelage of Moritz de Hadeln (later director of the Berlin festival) who also made sure that the selection of films was more balanced between the public’s taste and independent films.
In the 1980s David Streiff began programming more retrospectives and introduced faraway countries such as Iran and China to the public, which rose to 100,000 spectators. In the early 90s Marco Mueller (later director of the Rome film festival) took over the reins to make the festival even more viable by adding a film market to solidify its commercial attraction. (credit: Bernard Lechot, 2002)
And so it has continued through a flurry of directors who seem to have brought this once small but renowned festival into even more experimental and ‘open doors’ territory, giving it over to young, first-time hopefuls who are using this important venue as a springboard to their future. The problem is, everyone feels they can make a movie today, but that is not a given. Many of them are neither polished nor responsible for the images they are creating in this grand world of cinema, probably the highest form of art in the 20th and 21st centuries. At least that’s the way it felt for me this year.
There were numerous films that were sorry affairs, with appalling, useless dialogue or more often gutter language that has become the trendy mode of speech these days (such as the nervy “Medusa Deluxe”, which Variety has labeled ‘hottest property’!). There were works that were experimental (didn’t we go through those in the 60s?) and numbingly dull, such as the Competition entry, “Human Flowers of Flesh”. Others were just contrived to supposedly break down taboos, while they were simply vulgar and insulting to one’s intelligence and sensibilities, such as the atrocious shorts that were shown in the Pardi di Domani section. One short film called “Il faut regarder le feu ou brûler dedans” had the director waiting for the day she could kill anyone who disagreed with her, while starting fires all over the place. An Iranian short, titled “Mother Prays all Day Long” (of course she does, with such a daughter!) was so shamelessly pornographic that it was sickening and shocking. Is that what we are to look forward to in our tomorrows – shock value? As the saying goes, “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”. With many films that one had to walk out of, it became quite depressing.
But then there were the positives to fall back on – the great Forum encounters where one could meet special guests such as actor/director Matt Dillon (“The Outsiders”, “Crash”, “Drugstore Cowboy”), who told of the many directors who had influenced him, and the great German character actor Udo Kier, of the amazing pale blue eyes, who was in Locarno with the touching Israeli film by Leon Prudovsky, “My Neighbor Adolf”. With his strong presence and sharp humor, he had the Forum entranced.
The icing on the cake was the attendance of Alexander Sokurov, the Russian grand master of cinema (“Russian Ark”, “Father and Son”) who was there with his latest film “Skazka” (“Fairytale”), in the Competition lineup. The film is an astounding portrayal of such leaders and dictators as Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill, Napoleon and even a tired Christ wandering around in a sort of Purgatory. The CGI – computer generated imagery – is quite brilliant, while their vague conversations can at times be baffling. But the mesmerizing waves of their followers and the overwhelming music penetrate one’s senses in a hypnotic way, showing how evil persists, especially with the support of those masses. Though not his finest work, the film does give one a sense of ominous probabilities throughout history.
And of course there were the nightly Piazza Grande screenings, with some good films and some duds. The most enjoyable event though, was this year’s Retrospective on Douglas Sirk, the late German/American director who made those schmaltzy 1950s melodramas such as “Magnificent Obsession”, “All that Heaven Allows” and “Imitation of Life”, usually starring Rock Hudson. The revelation in this well-organised retrospective was his early German-language films from the 1930s and 40s, before he moved to Hollywood, which were absolute delights. This was where we came to refuel and regenerate from the disappointment of the new batch of films.
And finally some fine actresses such as Juliette Binoche and Sophie Marceau showed up with their films. They were a treat, unlike their overrated films – “Paradise Highway” for Binoche, and “Une femme de notre temps” for Marceau, both screened on the Piazza Grande.
Locarno is only a 5-hour train trip from Geneva – either via Domodossola, which takes you through the charming Cento Valle, or through Olten/Bellinzona.
Try it next year – it is a cinematic adventure.
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Neptune Ravar Ingwersen reviews film extensively for publications in Switzerland. She views 4 to 8 films a week and her aim is to sort the wheat from the chaff for readers.