Locarno International Film Festival 2014
by Richard Porton

Lav Diaz's five-and-a-half-hour  From What Is Before  won Locarno's Golden Leopard Prize

Lav Diaz's five-and-a-half-hour From What Is Before won Locarno's Golden Leopard Prize

Known for augmenting offbeat films with crowd-pleasing selections, the Locarno Film Festival ‘s sixty-seventh edition demonstrated why this event has become a crucial gathering place for cinephiles. Locarno’s dedication, at least in its official competition and various sidebars, to rigorous cinema (the al fresco screenings on the Piazza Grande are reserved for mainstream fare) was solidified in 2014 with the awarding of its top prize, the Golden Leopard, to Lav Diaz’sFrom What Is Before.

From What Is Before, which clocks in at five and a half hours, chronicles the paranoia that permeates a Filipino village as odd events, which presage Ferdinand Marcos’s declaration of martial law, transform the villagers’ placid agrarian rhythms into a nightmare. Cows are being hacked to death and villagers stricken with peculiar wounds as a large cast of characters, both honorable and roguish, deal with the threat of imminent fascism. An empathetic priest, as well as sisters who purport to possess unusual healing powers, highlight the coexistence of Christianity and syncretic religions within The Philippines.

While Diaz’s trademark style—long takes frequently accompanied by brooding tracking shots—is on prominent display in From What Is Before, he reverts to the languorous cadences evident in previous black-and-white epics like Melancholia and abandons the slightly tauter, modified version of “slow cinema” initiated in North, the End of History. Even though From What Is Before builds to a devastating, cataclysmic conclusion, it’s difficult not to wonder if some of the ostentatious, if bravura, camera movements and sequence shots have become stylistic tics that have worn out their welcome.

The late Peter von Bagh’s final documentary, Socialism, nestled within a sidebar entitled Histoire(s) du cinema, received less attention at the festival. With luck, this neglect will be rectified eventually since von Bagh’s ingenious essay film fuses political preoccupations and cinephilic concerns with remarkable finesse. Von Bagh’s ruse is deceptively simple: the rise and fall of socialism as a communal ideal is recounted with the help of excerpts from notable films. Opening the film with the Lumière brothers’ Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory reiterates the relative rarity of worker protagonists in either fiction or documentary films since 1895. Some of von Bagh’s juxtapositions are obvious; an interlude devoted to the seventy-two-day Paris Commune of 1871 is punctuated with a stirring excerpt from Leonid Trauberg and Grigori Kozintsev’s The New Babylon. Less predictably, clips from Rossellini’s Open City and Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew convey the religious fervor of socialism. The disciples in Pasolini’s masterpiece are described as possessing the faces of prototypical workers; the implication is that the film functions as a precursor of what would come to be known as “liberation theology.”

Socialism reflects von Bagh’s cinematic obsessions, as well as his political ecumenism: both Lenin and the anarchist militia leader Buenvanetura Durruti are members of his personal pantheon of political heroes. Von Bagh is, to be sure, unblinkered when it comes to the legacy of Stalinism—despite being torn between the intermittent beauty of socialist-realist imagery and the barbarous ideology it exemplifies. In this vein, Dovzhenko’s Earth, a film that itself was controversial among Soviet apparatchiks, is termed “perhaps the most beautiful film ever made.” Yet von Bagh is aware that, despite the film’s lyricism and stylistic innovations, it nevertheless contributed, however ambiguously, to propaganda promoting the forced collectivization of agriculture in the Ukraine that led to the so-called “terror famine” that cost millions of lives.

Curiously enough, Socialism’s Stalinist nightmare is partially negated by invoking the naive idealism of the New Deal era in the United States. Tom Joad’s “I’ll be There” speech from The Grapes of Wrath and a snippet from King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread, a film that celebrates a peculiarly American variant of communalism—if not full-blown communism—recalls a time when paeans to the “American Dream” did not preclude dabbling in rhetoric that would be considered subversive by the advent of the Cold War.

A somewhat more opaque political aesthetic suffuses Pedro Costa’s (Costa won Locarno’s prize for Best Director) Horse MoneyHorse Money reintroduces us to Ventura, the Cape Verdean émigré and ex-construction worker who was the cynosure of Costa’s Colossal Youth. A mournful saga of urban renewal in Lisbon that focused on the uprooting of the impoverished Fontainhas quarter as its residents reluctantly pack up and move to a clean, but impersonal and sterile, housing development, Colossal Youth was jeered at Cannes but went on to become one of the most critically lauded art films of the early twenty-first century. Costa’s films appear deceptively documentary-like—but are actually carefully rehearsed works of fiction starring nonprofessional actors.

Obliquely evoking both Jacques Tourneur and John Ford, Horse Money transports Ventura to a mundane purgatory, a mental hospital where the elderly man, both deranged and oddly lucid, summons up memories that prove simultaneously traumatic and poignant. It soon becomes clear that Ventura either cannot —or will not—distinguish between the present and the past. This sort of temporal delirium reinvents the modernist propensity to construct time as fluid and nonlinear.

The protagonist of Pedro Costa's earlier film,  Colossal Youth , Cape Verdeanémigré Ventura returns in  Horse Money

The protagonist of Pedro Costa's earlier film, Colossal Youth, Cape Verdeanémigré Ventura returns in Horse Money

Costa’s most didactic maneuver is to open the film with Jacob Riis photographs depicting New York City slum dwellers at the turn of the twentieth century, images which link the Cape Verdean outcasts of Horse Money to Riis’s poor huddled masses. Much of the film, however, is bound up with the palpable nature of Ventura’s ghostly memories. The viewer, for example, has to parse Ventura’s odd meeting with a woman named Vitalina in his carceral netherworld. Ostensibly in Lisbon for her husband’s funeral, she’s a catalyst who reminds Ventura of a more pastoral existence in his Cape Verdean homeland.

Costa’s film is also partially an elegy for the Portuguese “Carnation” Revolution of 1974–1975. Even though the radical aspirations of the Seventies have congealed into the neoliberal nostrums that now influence Portugal’s economic trajectory, the repressed past returns spectacularly in a hauntingly strange scene in which Ventura, trapped in an elevator with a revolutionary soldier splattered in greasepaint, recalls the days of revolutionary fervor with more despair than wistfulness.

In 2014, Locarno broke with tradition by devoting its retrospective to a key institution—the important Italian studio Titanus—instead of an auteur. As Emiliano Morreale observes in the retrospective’s sumptuous catalogue, the studio forged “ a complex balance between high—and lowbrow—production.” This salutary eclecticism was reflected in a series of screenings at Locarno’s delightfully musty Ex-Rex Cinema that allowed Visconti’s The Leopard and Fellini’s ll Bidoneto rub shoulders with classics of commedia all’italiana such as Luigi Comencini’s Bread, Love, and Dreams, as well as a spectacular, pulpy peplum—The Giant of Marathon (directed by the odd trio of Mario Bava, Jacques Tourneur, and Bruno Vailati.) It’s fortunate indeed that the Titanus retrospective will be reprised at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2015. One visit to Locarno was insufficient to view all of the gems by important, if unjustly neglected, directors such as, among others, Alberto Lattuada, Valerio Zurlini, and Rafaello Matarazzo.

Richard Porton is a Cineaste editor and author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination.

For more information on the Locarno International Film Festival, visit: http://www.pardolive.ch/en/Info/Festival/Presentation/A-major-event#.VGoMpIfXrls

Copyright © 2014 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 1