Further evidence of Latin American cinema’s burgeoning strength-in-depth was provided at the 64th Locarno Film Festival, running from 3rd to 13th August in the fancy Italian-Swiss resort on Lake Maggiore’s mountain-fringed shores. For the first time in its long history, the festival’s top prize went to an Argentinian picture – Back To Stay, debut-feature by 34-year-old writer-director Milagros Mumenthaler.
But Back To Stay, whose original Spanish-language title is the rather more alluring Abre puertas y ventanas (“Open doors and windows”), was also something of a “home win” for the prosperous Alpine nation. Born in Argentina, Mumenthaler emigrated with her family to Switzerland when only a few weeks old, returning to study in Buenos Aires and make a handful of well-received shorts – and now her first full-length film, a Swiss/Argentine co-production.
Vaguely Chekhovian in its basic premise, this is a slow-burning study of three sisters – their ages ranging, we estimate, from late teens to early twenties – brought up by their grandmother in a rambling suburban mansion following the death of their parents. When the grandmother herself passes away (just before the film’s story begins), the trio must belatedly face up to adult responsibilities.
It’s no surprise to learn that Mumenthaler herself has a couple of sisters, so astutely does she trace the tricky dynamics and jealousies that often inform relationships between female siblings living under the same roof. And while the early and stretches are content to occupy the torpid, claustrophobic, indoor spaces already well-mapped by Mumenthaler’s critically-praised compatriot Lucrecia Martel in The Swamp and The Holy Girl, Back To Stay (the title taken from a Bridget St John recording of a John Martyn track, played in one particularly atmospheric scene) gradually builds into a convincing examination of three-dimensional characters in the midst of quietly traumatic transition.
First among equals in a tight little ensemble, Maria Canale predictably won Locarno’s Best Actress award – beating off strong opposition headed by Hani Furstenburg from Julia Loktev’s austerely demanding, Caucasus-set three-hander The Loneliest Planet (co-starring Gael Garcia Bernal) and Lola Créton from the much-hyped Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye, First Love (a sweetly poignant but ultimately disappointing follow-up to art-house hit Father of My Children) .
These were among the most widely discussed titles in what was overall a distinctly underwhelming Golden Leopard competition – though male directors also got a fair look-in thanks to Adrian Sitaru’s droll, wry and darkly comic drama of family dysfunction Best Intentions (from Romania), which took Best Director and Best Actor; and Nadav Lapid’s uneven two-parter Policeman (from Israel), winner of the Special Jury Prize.
The Leopard jury seemed keen to ‘spread the love’ among several Competition titles this year, but surprisingly found nothing for what many regarded as perhaps the most noteworthy Leopard candidate – Sebastián Lelio’s The Year of the Tiger (El año del tigre). Even its detractors conceded that this low-budget Chilean drama has a truly crackerjack opening, in which we’re quickly introduced to middle-aged tough-guy Manuel (Luis Dubo) – a swaggering prison inmate who’s suddenly and unexpectedly liberated when his jail is destroyed by an earthquake. Manuel flees into the countryside, but realises that his problems are only just beginning as the whole area has been laid waste by the ‘quake and resulting tsunami.
Working amid what are evidently scenes of genuine tsunami-devastation, Lelio and scriptwriter Gonzalo Maza propel Manuel forward on a desperate quest to find his loved ones – and then to find a place in a world rendered inhospitably harsh by the caprices of tectonic providence. Although it loses its way rather badly in an extended sequence shortly after the halfway mark – during which Manuel encounters, works for, and gets drunk with a gun-toting farmer – The Year of the Tiger gets a fair degree back on track with a bluntly ironic finale.
Another edit or two would have shown off the merits of this rough little diamond of a movie to better advantage, but Lelio – whose third feature this is – displays levels of audacity, flair and promise which were otherwise in short supply among main competition films in Locarno this year, which ranged from the solid to the almost unwatchably poor. Among the chief offenders: the insultingly ludicrous Another Earth (Mike Cahill; USA), Last Days in Jerusalem (Tawfik Abu Wael; Israel), and a pair of insufferably and exquisitely pretentious French absurdities, Low Life (Nicolas Klotz & Elisabeth Perceval) and Last Screening (Laurent Achard).
Locarno’s stipulation that only world and international premieres are eligible for Leopard consideration means that it must compete for new movies with the bigger European festivals of Cannes (May) and Venice (early September) – tough opposition, by any measure. But that doesn’t explain why worthless dreck like Last Days In Jerusalem (essentially a woodenly-acted, soapy TV movie) sneaked into contention – ahead of several drastically more worthwhile titles which were relegated to the sidebar ‘Filmmakers of the Present’ competition (for first- and second-time directors).
From that section, Santiago Mitre’s The Student (El Estudiante) – taking a talkily intense West Wing approach to university politics – was perhaps the critical hit of the entire festival, while Ruslan Pak’s Hanaan, about an Uzbekistan cop of Korean descent, wasn’t far behind. For this writer, meanwhile, the standout discovery of Locarno 2011 was another ‘Filmmaker of the Present’, namely Mark Jackson’s nerve-jangling study of grief-stricken mental instability, Without.
Built around a powerhouse performance from big-screen newcomer Joslyn Jensen, it nods to Roman Polanski’s 1965 Repulsion in its suffocatingly up-close-and-personal immersion in the fractured psyche of its young female protagonist, though the setting – a leafy, rainy, underpopulated island in Washington State – is a very long way from the Kensington streets surveyed by Catherine Deneuve in the Polanski classic.
A superb showcase for the possibilities of high-definition digital video (via Jessica Dimmock and Diego Garcia’s lustrously precise cinematography), Without is skilfully edited, by Jackson himself, to keep us never quite sure what’s going on (we certainly know something‘s badly amiss, but can’t quite put our finger on it), without the picture crossing the line into excessively enigmatic art-movie obfuscation. It might not have won the Golden Leopard, but Without‘s presence in Competition would certainly have benefited both the festival and the movie – and the superb Jensen would surely have given Ms Canale a run for her dinero…
16th August 2011
written for Tribune magazine
Jigsaw Lounge‘s Locarno 2011 index-page