The Locarno Festival 2017 (Web Exclusive)
by Richard Porton and Shaista Husain

Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias’s Cocote.


The Locarno Festival (the name that rebrands the one-time Locarno Film Festival) is probably the only event of its kind that would showcase a double bill of David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, a far-fetched espionage thriller closely tailored to fit the talents of Charlize Theron, and Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s considerably more rarefied Sicilia (1999) in its most celebrated venue—the 8,000 seat Piazza Grande. Of course, by the time Sicilia screened around midnight, the audience numbered considerably less than 8,000, and some of those in attendance were slightly inebriated. Nevertheless, the eccentric pairing of a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster and an art-house classic exemplifies Locarno’s determination to cater to both popular and cinephilic tastes.

It’s also likely that Locarno is the only major European festival that would have given its top award (the Golden Leopard) to Wang Bing’s Mrs. Fang, an intransigently minimalist documentary devoted to the death agonies of an elderly Alzheimer’s patient. Although the small-scale Mrs. Fang veers far from the immersive aesthetic on display in Wang’s nine-hour, politically acute West of the Tracks, the more modest scope of the newer film is noteworthy for its ability to make audiences queasy. For documentary ethicists, there is something unsettling about the film’s glaringly intrusive shooting style and its relentless documentation of Mrs. Fang’s slow demise. Wang, however, seems to be alerting us to the even more disturbing ethical morass created by his protagonist’s family, a bickering, bored contingent of relatives who appear oblivious to Mrs. Fang’s suffering. It’s a subtler indictment of contemporary Chinese mores than the forceful critiques of institutional complacency proffered by West of the Tracks or ’Til Madness Do Us Part, Wang’s grim portrait of a chaotic mental institution housing patients that are as much outcasts and nonconformists as disturbed inmates.

Wang Bing's Mrs. Fang, winner of the Golden Leopard.

If Mrs. Fang was a salutary provocation, Serge Bozon’s Madam Hyde (a competition entry that earned its star, Isabelle Huppert, a Best Actress nod from the jury headed by Olivier Assayas) makes an effort to shock filmgoers but ends up being an exercise in gratuitous button-pushing. An opaque allegory that at times seems to parody French films about classroom pedagogy such as Laurent Cantet’s The Class, Bozon’s tongue-in-cheek portrait of the flustered teachers and angry students at a technical school in the Parisian suburbs amounts to little more than chic nihilism. Huppert plays Madame Géquil, a withdrawn and inept teacher whose charmlessness becomes eradicated when she’s hit by lightning and is suddenly transformed into a charismatic and empathetic instructor. Most of her black and North African students are unreconstructed stereotypes that mirror the clichés of smarty-alecky recalcitrance that turn up perennially in schoolroom narratives such as The Blackboard Jungle and Dangerous Minds. In this bizarre, and frankly racist, reinvention of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Madame Géquil metamorphoses into a human incendiary device and kills her prize pupil, a young Arab man named Malik. Besides some cutesy attempts to subvert genre conventions, Madame Hyde is close to pointless. While Huppert is usually superb, her performance in this film is unusually listless and one-dimensional. Perhaps it’s by now obligatory to honor even her most lackluster screen appearances.

Travis Wilkerson's Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

Of course, every festival’s competition is plagued with a few duds. For the most part, Locarno’s competition lineup was blessed with entries that were both aesthetically and politically challenging. Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? is a case in point. Influenced by both Santiago Alvarez and Dashiell Hammett, Wilkerson, best known for ultra-low-budget essay films such as An Injury to One, combines a noirish sensibility with a radical reinvention of the agitprop tradition. Wilkerson’s most autobiographical film is a risky venture. A self-propelled detective story to which the filmmaker adds, as usual, his own languidly delivered voice-over, Did You Wonder? zeroes in on the pervasiveness of American racism by examining his great-grandfather S. E. Branch’s murder of a black man—Bill Spann—in Alabama during the Forties. Wilkerson avoids mere liberal guilt and self-flagellation by refusing to see Branch as an unfortunate aberration. His task is to connect the dots between his own family’s personal anguish and the shameful American legacy of white supremacy. Over seventy years after the murder, locals shun and threaten Wilkerson when he searches for Spann’s grave. Even his own aunt, a vociferous defender of Branch, is an unrepentant white supremacist. As Wilkerson acknowledges, the mainstream response of the American entertainment industry is to construct “white savior narratives” in which “secular saints” such as To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch hog the spotlight as unblemished heroes. (A crimson-tinged image of Gregory Peck in Robert Mulligan’s adaptation of Mockingbird accompanies Wilkerson’s reprimand to smug white liberalism.) The antidote to such complacency is, at least implicitly, the militancy of Black Lives Matter—especially since Janelle Monae’s BLM anthem “Hell You Talmbout” is deployed as a prominent leitmotif on the film’s soundtrack.

Ana Urushadze’s Scary Mother, winner of the First Feature Prize.

As is often true at Locarno, some of the festival’s genuine discoveries could be unearthed in Cinema of the Present, a section devoted primarily to first and second features. Georgian director Ana Urushadze’s Scary Mother (winner of the First Feature Prize), one of this sidebar’s highlights, is a mordant portrait of a woman combating stifling sexism and puritanism within her own family. Manana, a middle-aged housewife, creates a scandal when her unpublished manuscript, an experimental erotic novel, unleashes her husband and father’s patriarchal rage. Urushadze expertly shifts the ambiance from a relatively playful first half to a darkly expressionistic conclusion. She’s also aided by Nata Murvanidze’s quietly intense performance, as well as the artful frontal compositions of cinematographer Mindia Esadze.           

Valerie Massadian’s second feature, Milla, awarded a Special Jury Prize, was an equally potent ode to feminine resilience in the face of adversity. Poised intriguingly between realism and stylized lyricism, Massadian’s beautifully observed film depicts the daily life of the eponymous heroine, a stoic teenager coping with the loss of her lover and life as a single mother. Shot in a small village near the English Channel, the film patiently depicts Milla’s reveries and bouts of despondency, her work routine in a local hotel, and her joyful bonding with her young son. Making her screen debut, Séverine Jonckeere portrays the mercurial heroine with a fierce commitment that more or less eradicates any barrier between the actress and her role.

Valerie Massadian’s Milla, winner of a Special Jury Prize.

Signs of Life, a Locarno sidebar that specializes in experimental narratives and often foregrounds fiction and documentary hybrids, frequently launches films that have gone on to become staples of the repertory cinema circuit. In 2016, Theo Anthony’s Rat Film, impressed audiences with its audacious blend of political outrage and mock-sociological inquiry. This year, two films, Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias’s Cocote and Adirley Queirós’s Era uma Vez Brasilia (Once There Was Brasilia), received the lion’s share of the acclaim.

Cocote, which won the prize as the Best Film in Signs of Life, artfully synthesizes fictional and nonfictional components to explore class conflict and religious tensions in the Dominican Republic. Alberto (Vicente Santos), a fervent evangelical Christian who works as a gardener for a wealthy family clashes with his family after his father is suddenly murdered. Repulsed by the syncretic religious rituals embraced by his contentious relatives, Alberto must confront their demands for vengeance. Deliriously mixing film stocks and tonal shifts, handheld footage of actual syncretic rituals anchor viewers in a reality that its protagonist desperately wants to bypass.

Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias’s Cocote, winner of Best Film in Signs of Life.

Reminiscent of the underground movies directed by the Brazilian maverick Andrea Tonacci during the Seventies, Once There Was Brasilia abjures realism altogether as it appropriates the tropes of Grade-Z science fiction in order to make sense of a contemporary Brazil coping with what many observers consider a de facto right-wing coup. The film assumes that an absurd narrative premise is uniquely designed to delineate the absurd political morass plaguing Brazil. Scanning the plot synopsis in the Locarno catalogue conveys the film’s wackiness without hinting at its despair: “In 1959, the intergalactic agent WA4…receives a mission: to go to planet Earth and kill the president of the Republic, Juscelino Kubitschek, on the day of Brasilia’s inauguration.” Instead of fulfilling this plan to murder the liberal Brazilian president responsible for the city intended to be an emblem of Latin American modernity, the refugee from outer space ends up in a desolate satellite city inhabited by poor, ostracized residents. The utopian vision of Brasilia, however naive, has degenerated into a carceral, dystopian state; radio broadcasts of former President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment hearings, considered a sham by many progressive Brazilians, drown out all extraneous noise and dialogue on the soundtrack.

Adirley Queirós’s Era uma Vez Brasilia (Once There Was Brasilia).

To its credit, Locarno does not ghettoize its retrospectives and devotes as much energy to programming older films as it does to promoting world premieres. A complete Jacques Tourneur retrospective, curated by Roberto Turigliatto and Rinaldo Censi (scheduled to travel to the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2018) allowed festivalgoers to revisit classics such as Out of the Past and Cat People while seeking out more obscure titles (e.g., The Fearmakers and Doctors Don’t Tell) that demonstrate the range of a director who dabbled in almost every Hollywood genre from the Western and the horror film to melodrama and film noir. (A screening of Paul Schrader’s 1982 Cat People confirmed that the remake was enjoyable kitschy and featured a remarkably convincing performance by Nastassja Kinski, who was honored by the festival and nervously introduced the film.) To celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the festival, a selection of seminal films that screened at Locarno were highlighted. One of the high points included Todd Haynes’s breakthrough movie Poison, a variation on themes inspired by Jean Genet. The screening was preceded by a moving introduction by Haynes, who dedicated the event to James Lyons, his former editor (and one of the stars of Poison) who died of AIDS in 2007. In a lighter vein, Catherine Breillat introduced her 36 Fillette, which chronicles an affair between a sexually precocious fourteen-year-old and an oily middle-aged man, with an almost boastful admission that most of the French critics hated the film upon its release. It was one of those endearing spontaneous moments that make Locarno the preferred summer destination for hard-core cinephiles.

For information on the Locarno Festival, click here.

Richard Porton, a Cineaste editor, is currently writing a monograph on Adam Curtis for the University of Illinois Press.

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

Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 1