Corpus Laboris

Paul Dallas on the 66th Festival del film Locarno

Joaquim Pinto, E agora? Lembra-me (What Now? Remind Me), 2013, digital video, color, sound, 164 minutes.

NOW IN ITS SIXTY-SIXTH YEAR, the Locarno Film Festival remains a cineast’s festival devoted to discovery. Each August, the southern Swiss town, situated ten miles from Italy (an oasis with palm trees and views of the Alps), dresses up in the ubiquitous yellow leopard print (as per Locarno’s mascot) to play host to one of Europe’s oldest festivals. Locarno benefits from a serendipitous combination of Swiss organization and Mediterranean charm, and as such it offers an antidote to Venice’s glitzy industry influence, retaining an enjoyably easygoing atmosphere while also championing cinema as art.

This “frontier” festival, as it’s been dubbed, has always adopted an expansive curatorial stance. To put it bluntly, Locarno exists to showcase films that are “difficult, complicated, or ignored by other festivals,” according to Italian critic Carlo Chatrian, the festival’s new artistic director, who also asserted the importance of celebrating cinematic “histories” rather than cinematic milestones. This year’s edition included a complete retrospective of George Cukor, whose sophisticated 1950 melodrama A Life of Her Own, starring Lana Turner and historically dismissed as one of his worst pictures, turned out to be one of the festival’s purest delights.

Chatrian envisions borders as lines that connect rather than divide. And indeed many of the old divisions are made irrelevant in Locarno’s two main sections, the International Competition and the Filmmakers of the Present (for emerging directors), both of which make no categorical distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, narrative and experimental. This year’s Competition included twenty features and eighteen world premieres, with new work by auteurs Hong Sang-soo, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Corneliu Porumboiu, Albert Serra, Joaquim Pinto, and Joanna Hogg. Concessions to local taste do exist, however, and can be found nightly in the Piazza Grande, the eight-thousand-seat outdoor cinema, where you can catch middlebrow fare or the action vehicle Two Guns—an admittedly perverse choice for the festival’s opening night.

The connective tissue among films this year, including the festival’s winners, was an intense focus on the corporeal. The Competition jury, presided over by Filipino director Lav Diaz, awarded the festival’s top prize to Catalan director Albert Serra’s unapologetically idiosyncratic costume drama Història de la meva morte, and bestowed the Special Jury Prize on Joaquim Pinto’s profoundly intimate documentary E agora? Lembra-me. Serra’s dryly comic film—which he described in a press conference as “unfuckable”—follows Casanova’s (and, by extension, the Enlightenment’s) last days as the debased lover wanders northern Europe and encounters the dark, romantic forces of Dracula. Featuring protracted scenes of arousal, defilement, and neck biting, as well as an extended dismemberment of a cow, Serra’s ponderous ode to excess somehow manages to beguile with its lugubrious tone and painterly digital video compositions. On the other hand, Pinto’s triumphant return to filmmaking is a stream-of-consciousness diary film consumed with the maladies and vicissitudes endured by the human body in the twenty-first century. Shot on multiple formats, it documents Pinto’s yearlong experimental treatment for HIV and Hepatitis C. Much of the film focuses on his relationship with husband Nuno and their life together in remote Azores, and it features a sex scene as tender as it is graphic. João Pedro Rodrigues’s medium length O corpo de Afonso, a highlight of the noncompetition films, consists of the director auditioning naked men—many of whom are unemployed—for the role of Portugal’s first king, in a film in which the metaphorical body comes to include all of that country’s citizens.

Stomach pains, real and imagined, dog Paul, the film-director protagonist of Corneliu Porumboiu’s wry competition entry When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism, which contemplates both the end of celluloid as well as the limits of the body. (The film is composed of eighteen shots, the longest of which runs eleven minutes.) “When you’re filming, you put what interests you in the center, not at the margin,” a doctor tells Paul as they stare at video images of his endoscopy. The director shrugs and walks away—a reaction many had to Porumboiu’s film. However, its careful architecture and one particular dinner scene involving Chinese food left me more than satisfied. Architecture, in the form of a peculiar modernist townhouse, plays a central character in British director Joanna Hogg’s excellent Exhibition, a cerebral, ambiguous film that stars Liam Gillick and musician Viv Albertine (of the Slits) as H and D, a bourgeois middle-aged artist couple looking to sell. Hogg’s film, which deftly trades art-world satire for a much more mysterious exploration of marriage and creativity, is greatly aided by Albertine’s fully embodied performance artist, a possible “objectiphile” disposed to erotic encounters with furniture and merging her body with parts of the house, which she almost never leaves.

Alexander Carver and Daniel Schmidt, The Unity of All Things 物之合, 2013, digital video, color, sound, 98 minutes.

On the other side of the world, pilgrims traveling to a sacred Nepalese temple are transported high above the jungle via cable car in Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s mesmerizing Manakamana, which was rightly awarded the top prize in the Filmmakers of the Present section. (The eclectic jury was led by Hartmut Bitomsky and included Canadian musician Peaches, who treated festivalgoers to a performance in the Piazza.) Spray and Velez’s structuralist ethnographic film, produced at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, is a kind of anti-Leviathan, in which the viewer is constantly aware of their position in time and space: The camera never leaves the cable car, and the length of each shot corresponds both to one leg of the journey and to the length of a roll of 16-mm film. Passengers, who face the camera and are framed by the landscape moving behind them (a nod to rear projection), range from a pair of elderly Nepalese women enjoying ice cream to, shockingly, a quartet of bleating goats—all of whom appear as if by magic each time the cable car enters and leaves the terminal. Another journey film in this section is Alexander Carver and Daniel Schmidt’s The Unity of All Things 物之合, an ambitious experimental narrative involving particle physics that was shot in sites as far-flung as Jiuzhai Valley in China and the Sonoran desert, near the US-Mexico border. The film takes on nothing less than the instability of everything, from gender to the nuclear family to the cinematic image itself. Its utopian concerns were echoed in Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s collaboration A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, a tripartite feature exploring variations on collective and solitary experience shot in Estonia, Finland, and Norway that screened in a section entitled “Signs of Life,” named after the Werner Herzog film.

Herzog, who was in town to receive the festival’s top honor, gave a surprisingly pragmatic master class in which he voiced support for shooting features on cell phones. His latest “film,” From One Second to the Next, a texting and driving PSA for AT&T released online to over 1.7 million views, was a late addition to the festival and played alongside Fitzcarraldo in an example of Locarno’s lateral appreciation of cinema.

The 66th Festival del film Locarno ran August 7–17, 2013.