Locarno 2013: Michael Pattison’s Report & Top Ten
Lodged between the foot of the Alps and the tip of Lake Maggiore, Locarno boasts diversity even before its annual film festival takes over the Swiss city for twelve stuffy days every August. At the 66th Festival del film Locarno, old met new, big met small and everyone met each other – including an impromptu sit-down between Werner Herzog and Abel Ferrara. While Ferrara was in town (again) for the fun of it, Herzog was the gracious recipient of an honorary award. This gong was presented to him before a screening of Fitzcarraldo (1982) – but with Richard Curtis’ latest rom-com, About Time, sandwiched bizarrely in between. Whether such a double-bill was the result of deliberately barmy programming or a clerical error, it meant the Bavarian’s already demanding epic stretched into the early hours of a morning – which at once seemed appropriate and unreasonable.
Besides Herzog, Locarno also presented honours to Victoria Abril, Jacqueline Bisset, Douglas Trumbull and Sir Christopher Lee – whose one English-language remark in an otherwise Italian acceptance speech made reference to the lightsaber duel between him and Yoda in Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). Apparently, Lee did his own stunts for the scene… sincere confirmation or a joke? Either way, it garnered as many laughs as the pre-speech montage of the actor’s career did claps – the heartiest applause was reserved for footage of Lee’s wizardry in one of the Lord of the Rings films.
A small selection of films related to the festival’s honourees was complemented, meanwhile, by a complete retrospective of George Cukor – whose 1941 Joan Crawford vehicle A Woman’s Face was a welcome backup plan on opening night, when the outdoor screening of 2 Guns was interrupted by a heavy downpour.
Of the many films receiving their first public screenings at Locarno, though, I saw a dozen or so to write home about. Just missing out on my (obligatory) top ten list was Roxanne (Romania/Hungary), Valentin Hotea’s debut feature, about a man and a nation only now coming to terms with the intrusions, fear and distrust that defined life under Ceaușescu . Though its repetitions might wear thin, I was also impressed by Sebástian Lelio’s Gloria (Chile/Spain), and by the strength of its performances in particular; Paulina García won the Silver Bear for Best Actress when the film premiered in Berlin earlier this year.
Elsewhere, the biggest disappointment came from Romanian New Waver Corneliu Porumboiu, whose When Evening Falls On Bucharest or Metabolism is far less provocative than its title – though its director’s natural talent seeped through to enough of an extent that the film was far from being the worst of Locarno’s variable fare. Without further ado, then, a countdown of capsules on the ten best world- or international-premieres I saw in Locarno; each entry concludes with a line, scribbled into my trusted notebook during viewing, that might best encapsulate the film and/or my feelings on it.
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10. What Fire Brought to Me (Lo que el fuego me trajo)
(Adrián Villar Rojas :: Argentina / Brazil)
Wordlessly and enigmatically, installation artist Villar Rojas depicts an end-of-time scenario in which humans indefatigably work together in ensuring their own survival – intervening upon an untouched landscape to build a new habitat within it. I liked the Trotskyism on display: the interest the film paid equally to labour as an ongoing and necessarily incomplete human process, and to intricate toys and ornaments fashioned from trees. Culture = all that is manmade, regardless of the value judgements placed upon it by society’s tastemakers.
This might have been a feature that outstayed its welcome… but 43m feels perfect length – midlengthers defy & challenge programming conventions through length alone
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9. The Dirties
(Matt Johnson :: USA / Canada)
Amusing, elusive, down-to-earth hybrid of bullying drama, high school massacre comedy and a meta-doc demystification thereof. Johnson sees and utilises the creative potential in everything around him, and relies on his and co-star Owen Williams’ contrasting personalities to keep the burner going long past the point of reality-slippage.
convo about the definition of “arbitrary” – struggles to justify its own framing device
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(Joanna Hogg :: UK)
Pointing one’s camera at the emotionally suffocating domestic life of two artists brings obvious limitations, and Hogg’s latest has less of the pained social interactions and class tensions that permeated Unrelated (2007) and Archipelago (2010). But the writer-director is simply too detailed and astute not to draw truthful insights from her scenario; as the central couple whose declining marriage is complemented by the intriguing but ultimately stiff architecture of their own home, Viv Albertine and Liam Gillick are spot-on.
Security / insulation – H on a roof – literally & symbolically elevated above the city
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7. Costa da Morte
(Lois Patiño :: Spain)
Galicia’s Coast of Death gets its name from its infamous history of shipwrecks. Once regarded as the ‘Finisterrae’, the region is honoured here in what might be the year’s best feature about the world’s end – an essay that films its landscapes zoomed in from afar so that their space, like their history, is flattened. Though less conceptually precise, it also pays brief tribute to Benning’s casting a glance (2007) midway through.
couldn’t be further from the bombast of action cinema, but quarry explosion caused me + a few others to jump
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6. Master of the Universe
(Marc Bauder :: Germany)
Errol Morris-style view of the economic collapse as perceived by one of its “insiders”: Rainer Voss, a banker whose forthright manner and palpably comfortable presence before a camera make for compelling viewing. Funny and sharp, its obvious limitations, of a biased narrative, are embraced rather than probed (Voss believes regulated capitalism is attainable). Incidentally, among the many banks accused of a compromised practice in the run up to the present financial collapse is UBS – Festival del film Locarno’s main sponsor.
floor-to-ceiling windows on the one hand suggest all of this manipulation, greed and folly is on display for anyone willing to look. but, elevator shots make clear, this world is so far removed from a ground-level perspective. // architecturally, as low-angle shots remind us, these towers are like modern-day castles – they’re inaccessible
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5. Sense of Humour (Le sens de l’humour)
(Marilyne Canto :: France)
An outwardly ordinary drama, about a widow and single mother who learns to love another man, is elevated by matter-of-fact handling of the emotional frissons that feature in everyday life. Like so many other actors-turned-directors before her, Canto draws from her fellow performers an emotional sincerity and complexity that grips even when the film threatens to implode under its own concentration. Indeed, it’d be sentimental if it weren’t so excellently acted.
one-take scenes but with enough dynamic and range for this aesthetic choice never to get mannered
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4. The Green Serpent: Of Vodka, Men and Distilled Dreams
(Benny Jaberg :: Switzerland / Russia)
An unassuming 21-minute delight of a documentary conveying the joys and troubles that vodka brings to three Russian men – an actor, a poet and a physician. While the 40% beverage has a hallucinatory potential that facilitates creative endeavour, its subsequent hangovers for these men – and for the audience who will relate so well to them – is ghastly indeed. Written, directed and co-produced by Benny Jaberg, The Green Serpent is part of Cinetrain, a film production initiative that brings together a range of international filmmakers to place them in extreme locations and situations by way of that most cinematic modes of transport: the locomotive.
“it’s torture to be sober”
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3. El futuro
(Luis López Carrasco :: Spain)
López Carrasco’s ironically-titled debut feature is a knowing look back at the brief window of optimism that followed Spain’s 1982 general elections, in which the Spanish Socialist Workers Party won 48% of all votes. Simple in concept, the film captures the imbibed developments of a house party, whose guests debate, dance and drink the night away. Visual filters and editorial ruptures emphasise the nostalgia and, by extension, the implication that we’re watching a collective happiness that has already been and gone.
deliberate glitches – imagistic + editorial – suggest something is afoot while these 20somethings party away their utopia
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2. Short Term 12
(Destin Cretton :: USA)
An American indie working to such an aesthetically familiar register? Cretton’s second feature had no right to sweep me along in the way that it did. And it did, several times over its 95 minutes, with such a sweet, hopeful and even authentic take on the ups and downs of life at a foster care facility. Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. are both excellent, and the final image, of an American flag being chased in slow motion, has an obvious but undeniable beauty.
“why are you so into me?” // “we being serious? well, that’s easy – you are the weirdest, most beautiful person I know”
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1. Story of My Death (Historia de la meva mort)
(Albert Serra :: Spain / France)
Though it was met by Jigsaw Lounge’s own creator with a shrug, Serra’s latest might be 2013’s first masterpiece: a baffling enterprise of ambition, showmanship and provocation, in which a Barry Lyndon-esque period portrait gives way to the darker impulses of a vampire horror. Marx found in Dracula an allegory for capitalism itself – here, the Count brings the Enlightenment, as embodied by Casanova, to a premature and decisive end – a horror that cuts deeper than any set of fangs. The stairs of poetry are very steep, but Serra can turn shit into gold.
“these women will cause a rage in times to come”
more on Locarno…