Moving Targets

Leo Goldsmith at the 69th Festival del film Locarno

Eduardo Williams, El auge del humano (The Human Surge), 2016, HD video, color, sound, 100 minutes.

WHILE THE FESTIVAL DEL FILM LOCARNO has a global scope and picture-postcard setting equal to any major film festival in the world, this year’s iteration was conspicuously, even blissfully, free of marquee-name festival directors, opting instead for the (slightly) more recondite, untested, and unknown. The festival’s top prize, the Golden Leopard, went to Bulgarian director Ralitza Petrova’s first feature, Godless, and maybe the glitziest offering on the massive screen of the Piazza Grande’s was Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winner, I, Daniel Blake. Even the festival’s retrospective—always among Locarno’s highlights—went for the relatively obscure, examining the oft-undervalued postwar West German cinema with an extraordinary selection of musicals, horror films, avant-garde shorts, sponsored films (including a 3-D Volkswagen commercial), and the occasional war film about “good” Nazis caught between the Soviets and the Führer.

All of this seems oddly fitting for a festival that, along with its emphasis on the relatively obscure, also took up a tacit subtheme of narrative illogic and psychological opacity. A little over a decade ago, Claire Denis’s L’Intrus (The Intruder) laid down a challenge to forge a new kind of narrative cinema based on randomness and intuition over logical cohesion. And while this challenge has seldom been taken up, even by Denis herself, by midfestival Locarno’s selection had demonstrated a clear trend in this direction with a set of wayward, often circuitous films marked by deviation, doubling, and disconnection. From portmanteau narratives to wide-ranging picaresques, film after film reveled in the structurally and cognitively mercurial, speaking with varying degrees of directness to a by-now well-established sense of cinema’s uncertain place in the increasingly expanding, exhausting world of moving images, and to the equally destabilized nature of identity under networked capitalism.

Angela Schanelec, Der traumhafte Weg (The Dreamed Path), 2016, HD video, color, sound, 86 minutes.

Indeed, Locarno’s strongest films could all be summed up in the title of—and everything else about—Angela Schanelac’s The Dreamed Path. The first and—at least in the Anglophone world—least appreciated of the so-called Berlin School directors, Schanelac has carved out a style of exacting mise-en-scène and disconcertingly affectless performance that clearly suggests Bresson. But in lieu of his steely-eyed precision, Schanelac opts for the abstruse and enigmatic. Spanning some thirty years—from Greece on the occasion of its entrance into the European Community in the early 1980s to present-day Germany—The Dreamed Path covers a lot of ground, and yet its wholly unknowable characters curiously wear the same costumes throughout, while every gesture and line of dialogue returns us continually to the fundamental ambiguity of being.

No film captured this sense of uncertainty as seductively as The Ornithologist, the latest feature from one of the international competition’s best-known filmmakers, Portugal’s João Pedro Rodrigues. Winner of the International Competition’s prize for best director, Rodrigues described his newest work as “an adventure film,” a designation that seems to fit. Rugged Gary Cooper–type Paul Hamy plays the titular bird-man, whose solitary traversal of a lushly photographed northern Portuguese landscape—a part of the country perhaps most associated with the director’s mentor, Antonio Reis—features alternatively hilarious, titillating, and terrifying encounters with a pair of castrating Chinese Christian lesbians; a mute, boyishly handsome goat-boy named Jesus; a troupe of violent and acrobatic forest demons; and the director himself. Along the way, Rodrigues lingers over the erotic imagery of Saint Sebastian’s martyrdom and tantalizes with suggestions of the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Alain Giraudie, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. But it’s not obsequiously referential; instead, the film syncretizes these many points of intersection into an utterly idiosyncratic personal mythos, a wild congregation of styles, tones, and icons that coheres into a kind of self-portraiture that remains enigmatic and achingly intimate.

Similarly personal and no less slippery, Matías Piñeiro’s latest, Hermia & Helena, is the Argentinean director’s first bilingual film, splitting time—as well as chronologies and relationships—between Buenos Aires summer and New York winter. The film finds Piñeiro regular Agustina Muñoz in an artist’s residency on the Lower East Side, where she picks up various trails and plotlines and love stories: of friends and former lovers and lost parents. Even more circuitous than other Piñeiro films, Hermia & Helena marks a distinct departure for the director, not only in its gymnastic sense of geography and temporality, but also in its curious formal details, including lush superimpositions, floating on-screen text, and jaunty Scott Joplin score. Piñeiro’s usual tempo is revised to accommodate the different languages and shifts in setting. The verbal and cinematographic mad dashes of previous films are exchanged for something dizzier and—as both the film and the characters keep returning to old affiliations and emotions and points in time—more somber.

Anocha Suwichakornpong, Dao Khanong (By the Time It Gets Dark), 2016, HD video, color, sound, 105 minutes.

History as its own kind of dreamed path is the guiding principle of Thai director Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Dao Khanong (alternate English-language title: By the Time It Gets Dark). Seven years in the making, her film drifts between lush rural idylls and colorless urban spaces, languorously following, at first, a filmmaker interviewing a witness of the massacre of student protesters at Thammasat University in 1979, then an actor who, we might guess, acts in the filmmaker’s film. A glimmering mushroom in the woods sends things off track, and the film then splinters into different, seemingly unrelated parts, including a music video and possibly scenes from a film-within-a-film about tobacco farmers, before glitching out entirely. The extradiegetic digital freak-out at film’s end foregrounds the constructedness of all images, but what’s still more remarkable is Suwichakornpong’s willingness to abdicate a certain kind of logic and directorial control in favor of a strangely intuitive, even random rethinking of narrative and historiography, taking up and discarding concepts and plot threads for which, even for the filmmaker, there may be no clear explanation.

But it was perhaps the debut features where this sense of experimentalism was most keenly felt. Most impressive, and winner of the Golden Leopard in the Cinema of the Present section, was a film by yet another Argentinean, Eduardo Williams’s The Human Surge. Williams has been making increasingly alluring short films for some years now, often based in far-flung locations. His latest links three seminarratives in disparate places: Argentina, Mozambique, and the Philippines. Often nameless and taciturn, the youngish characters wander aimlessly in search of jobs or places to stay or hang out or get online, remaining exceedingly difficult to pin down or even see, rendered as they are in acrobatically wobbly camerawork and dark, grainy images. Williams finds among these characters and his ever-unfolding landscapes a curious equilibrium, a rhythm of color and texture and nature and speech that’s always moving, always surprising. And, in a way, the film’s peripatetic spirit perfectly suited a festival devoted to a medium whose current state is ambling, intractable, and mercurial.

The sixty-ninth edition of the Festival del film Locarno ran August 3–13.