The Locarno International Film Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Richard Porton and Shaista Husain

Carlo Chatrian, the Locarno Film Festival’s chief since 2012, has quietly continued the policies of Olivier Père, his predecessor and the man credited with rehabilitating the reputation of one of Switzerland’s most venerable cultural events. Despite being known for crowd-pleasing films screened nightly on the Piazza Grande, the city’s crown jewel that has a capacity of eight thousand spectators, the festival’s primary focus is on less splashy art films featured in the Concorso internazionale, Locarno’s main competition. Even smaller, frequently more experimental movies are showcased in the Concorso Cineasti del presente (Cinema of the Present) sidebar. One of the Cinema of the Present’s most celebrated and most intransigently avant-garde films—Eduardo Williams’s The Human Surge—won a prize for the best film of its section and was subsequently featured in the “Projections” sidebar of the New York Film Festival.

Ralitza Petrova’s Godless, a Bulgarian film that Variety referred to as a “downbeat film…wallowing in degradation,” won the festival’s coveted Golden Leopard award, a prize that went to Lav Diaz in 2014 and Hong Sang-soo in 2015. Yet since journalists are not always able, for both logistical and financial reasons, to slog through entire festivals, we missed the Godless screening and were not able to wallow in its presumably pleasurable miserabilism. Yet Godless was not the only Bulgarian film in completion at Locarno. Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s Slava (Glory) was also indisputably downbeat—even though “wallowing in degradation” seems like a hyperbolic phrase to apply to this modest Eastern European fable.

Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s Slava (Glory)

The Lesson, Grozeva and Valchanov’s previous film, was a painstakingly naturalistic character study, which frequently generated comparisons to the Dardenne brothers’ deployment of a gritty style for didactic purposes. While Slava also wears its agenda on its sleeve and the often vertiginous cinematography of Krum Rodriguez is reminiscent of the restless camera movements employed by the Dardennes in their early films, the film is more likely to evoke memories of Nikolai Gogol and Franz Kafka’s antibureaucratic parables than the films of the Belgian siblings.

The scruffy Tsanko, cursed with an ineradicable stutter that plagues him at inopportune moments, is a railway worker who finds a pile of stray cash on the tracks and dutifully reports the windfall to the authorities. His efforts win him television exposure and a ceremony where he’s awarded a shiny digital watch as a reward. But when his own heirloom timepiece becomes lost and his prize proves to be a cheap imitation that doesn’t even work, the heroic laborer becomes bitter and realizes that he’s a victim of an unfeeling state apparatus. Tsanko’s primary antagonist is Julia, a PR flack at the Ministry of Transportation who considers the constant complaints of this prototypical “little man” (not for nothing did IndieWire label the film Capraesque) little more than irritants. Grozeva and Valchanov’s ironic gloss on contemporary Bulgaria is not particularly innovative, but nevertheless packs a punch: autocratic Stalinist traditions have morphed into a new, “soft” capitalist authoritarianism where “the People” are given lip service while a New Class of postsocialist apparatchiks reap the benefits.

Argentinian filmmaker Nele Wohlatz’s El Futuro perfecto (which won the prize for Best First Feature) proved a refreshingly modest entry. Instead of erring on the side of conceptual overload—the venial sin of many festival films—Wohlatz’s sixty-five minute minifeature was refreshingly minimalist as well as subtly playful. Based on the thinnest of premises—the struggle of a young Chinese immigrant, Zhang Xiaobin, to adjust to life in Buenos Aires— Wohlatz enchanted audiences with a movie that combined motifs from neorealism, “slow cinema,” and modernist reflexivity. At first, seventeen-year-old Xiaobin seems thoroughly ingenuous and vulnerable, a teenaged girl adrift in a strange country. As she becomes more confident, and the conditional tense highlighted in the title takes on personal resonances, the film’s tone shifts from a rather lugubrious, low-key neorealism to a more self-reflexive character study.

El Futuro perfecto is intriguing for its sly traversal of genres. If Xiaobin’s language classes initially seem to merely chronicle her wary adjustment to Argentinian mores, her instructor’s insistence that she and her classmates try out new identities shifts the terrain from realism to a near-Rivettian exercise in role-playing. Xiaobin’s incarnation as “Beatriz” makes her more self-assured. In the style of a true fiction/nonfiction hybrid, the actress who plays Xiaobin shares the name of her character and the narrative mirrors her own life since, like her alter ego, she was romantically involved with an Indian immigrant. Wohlatz offers the audience the option of assessing three different endings, an apt resolution to an exploration of one woman’s fluid identity.

Actual documentaries are often as slippery as faux-documentary hybrids. Alex Pitstra’s Bezness as Usual, screened during the Critics’ Week sidebar devoted to documentaries, was a case in point. An exercise in self-justification laced with occasional self-laceration, the film recounts a Dutch filmmaker’s attempt to uncover his origins by seeking out Mohsen, the Tunisian father he barely knows, a man who met his mother years before when she was vacationing in a once-popular seaside resort.

A bit of sleuthing makes Pitstra aware of a half-sister, a Swiss woman named Jasmin who shares the same father. Both liaisons were the product of what we would now call sex tourism—the phenomenon of European women traveling to “exotic” locales for erotic diversion and the desire of local men to pursue them as tickets out of poverty. Unfortunately, Pitstra and Jasmin’s tendency to confront Mohsen and assume he’s little more than a scrounger who expects his children to function as human cash machines is more than slightly narcissistic. Filtering the complex interactions between Europeans and North African through an exclusively personal lens while, perhaps understandable, is dismayingly ethnocentric. Despite the best of intentions, Pitstra’s film is ultimately more self-pitying than constructively empathetic.

Theo Anthony's Rat Film

If Bezness as Usual’s approach to nonfiction is disappointingly conventional, Theo Anthony’s Rat Film was a brash essay film that critics compared to the digressive lyricism pioneered by cine-essayists such as Chris Marker and Harun Farocki. Chronicling efforts to combat the ongoing infestation of vermin in Anthony’s hometown of Baltimore leads to seemingly scattershot, but in fact carefully calibrated, thematic tributaries. Beginning like a faux-ethnographic film, a pseudo-objective female narrator informs us that the Norwegian rat can jump thirty-two inches while a Baltimore trashcan spans thirty-four inches. The visual track conveys the frustration of a writhing rat, beady eyes gleaming and imprisoned, perhaps for time immemorial, in a sidewalk torture chamber. This grimly humorous slice of urban life eventually leads to a dizzying array of associative links. Anthony makes clear that the city’s obsession with pest control is analogous with a profoundly racist history of social control. An ordinance from 1911 (found unconstitutional in 1917) set the stage for apartheid-like segregation in Baltimore neighborhoods. The city sidestepped the judgment of the courts by imposing code violations on black residents of majority white neighborhoods. Dr. Curt Richter, a notorious researcher at Johns Hopkins, who both tortured rats in grisly experiments and promoted eugenics, is cited as a seminal figure in the city’s checkered history. Like a rat caught in a maze, the viewer must extricate him or herself from the salutary vertigo wrought by Anthony’s stratagems and reach some tentative conclusions.

Documentaries like Rat Film are vital components of an unorthodox form of cinematic pedagogy and Locarno’s annual retrospectives also educate audiences as they simultaneously entertain them. This year’s major retrospective, “Beloved and Rejected: Cinema in the Young Federal Republic of Germany from 1949 to 1963,” acquainted festivalgoers with a major chunk of film history that remains obscure to even the most rabid cinephiles. Postwar German cinema of any merit is usually assumed to begin with the Oberhausen Manifesto and the work of Kluge, Fassbinder, Wenders, and Herzog. Curators Claudia Dillmann and Olaf Möller sought to correct this outmoded and stereotypical view of postwar German film by acquainting audiences with little-known gems by directors such as Robert Siodmak, Helmut Kaütner, and little-known outliers like Kurt Hoffmann. Siodmak returned to Germany from his exile in the United States to direct The Devil Strikes at Night (1957), a sardonic, based-on-fact film noir that dealt with the Nazis’ attempt to cover up the crimes of a serial killer. The eponymous “devil,” actually a muscular simpleton, is played by veteran character Mario Adorf, the recipient of the Pardo Alla Carriera at this year’s festival.

Anita Höfer in Helmut Käutner's Black Gravel.

Kaütner’s Black Gravel (1961), however, was the most revelatory film of the retrospective. A forgotten exploration of a sordid mixture of grifters and criminals who hope to cash in on the building of an American air base, this relentlessly downbeat crime film is as cynical in tone as Fassbinder’s BRD trilogy—and equally suffused with black humor. Black Gravel is ripe for revival in this country and is certain to attract more attention if “Beloved and Rejected” travels, like past Locarno retrospectives devoted to George Cukor, Sam Peckinpah, and Italy’s Titanus studio, to the Film Society of Lincoln Center. As usual, Locarno affirms that the history of cinema is never static; film milestones are always in the process of being rediscovered and recontextualized.

For further information on the Locarno International Film Festival, click here.

Richard Porton is currently revising his 1999 book, Film and the Anarchist Imagination, for Verso and writing a monograph on the work of Adam Curtis for University of Illinois Press.

Shaista Husain  is a New York-based filmmaker and activist.

Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 1