The New Old – Locarno 75

15 August, 2022

One of the oldest and most prestigious film festivals in the world, Locarno turned 75 this year, an anniversary edition that celebrates the rich tradition of the Swiss festival through screenings, retrospectives, and honorary awards that are handed in the Piazza Grande to names such as Costa Gavras, Matt Dillon and Kelly Reichardt. In the seven editions that have passed since I’ve started attending the festival, three artistic directors have changed, each with a different vision of what and how things should be screened, but with most claiming to change the face of the event and to renew it, when perhaps all a solid event needs is a flexible continuity, in step with the times it is going through.

Locarno: 75 Locarno Film Festival, Piazza Grande
Piazza Grande © Locarno Film Festival / Ti-Press / Massimo Pedrazzini

Taking place between Cannes and Venice, that is, the world’s largest and the world’s oldest film festival, Locarno has always had a difficult task at hand, lacking the potency of a sufficiently glamorous red carpet to attract big stars and, more recently, platforms (Netflix has preferred Venice for some years now), while also lacking an attractive market for the industry’s big players. On top of this, the multicultural ace in the festival’s deck is also one of its biggest curatorial challenges, as it always includes a Swiss film in the international competition and (at least) one from its neighboring countries that also host elite festivals (Italy, France, Germany, Austria), in order to serve as a hub to promote regional cinema. The thankless task of seeking out films that are overlooked or too small for the likes of Cannes, Berlin, and Venice doesn’t necessarily translate into a negative aspect of the selection, but it’s certainly one that makes the work of the committee led by critic Giona A. Nazzaro much more difficult. While this task has been honorably discharged this year, with the competition including Valentin Merz’s eagerly awaited debut, the latest films directed by Patricia Mazuy, Helena Wittmann, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Ruth Mader, and Alessandro Comodin (winner of the Cineasti del presente section in 2011 with his debut feature), the challenge this time around was to build a sufficiently consistent core, that would give meaning to the programme. With a reputation as one of the few big festivals that can afford to take risks and to bet on auteurist, radical cinema that transcends current trends, Locarno is at a crossroads where its discourse increasingly overlaps with the Encounters sections of the Berlinale and, at times, with the selection of the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes.

Emulated by smaller festivals that don’t ask for world premieres, like the Viennale or Mar del Plata in Latin America, the festival on the shores of Lake Maggiore has reclaimed the spot once occupied by Rotterdam (plagued by two consecutive pandemic years) as the Mecca of the closed festival film circuit, of films that have few chances of being commercially exploited in theatres. In the context of consumer culture, based on an abundance of venues that are willing to lend their platforms and screens, it seemed that Locarno shied away from fully stepping into this status altogether, prioritizing form and avoiding wagering all of its bets in a single direction. As such, throughout this 75th edition, one could encounter everything from pandemic-era social films, like the Indian feature film Declaration (dir. Mahesh Narayanan), a modestly shot story of consent, dignity, and working-class rights with influences that lay claim to Iranian cinema, to (what is by now a mainstay of the festival circuit) the genre-tinged drama film condemning the colonialist past (Tommy Guns, dir. Carlos Conceição), the latest poetic-nihilistic film directed and (sublimely) photographed by Azerbaijani Hilal Baydarov (Sermon to the Fish), or the hallucinogenic CGI visual epic by master Alexander Sokurov (Fairytale).

Still from Regra 34
Still from Regra 34

If one can find a common thread running throughout the International Competition, it is doubtlessly the prevalence of narratives that, more or less skillfully, reclaim female empowerment and the right to decide over one’s own body in films that explore relationships of power and control. From coming-of-age films to vengeful thrillers and explorations of sexual fetishes, the decision to award the Golden Leopard to Julia Murat’s Regra 34, which explores the universe of virtual porn and sadomasochistic practices by a criminal law student in Rio de Janeiro, is less surprising if one is to consider the composition of the selection and the backgrounds of the jury members, that included filmmakers who are interested in sexuality and violence such as Alain Guiraudie (Stranger by the Lake) and Prano Bailey-Bond (Censor). Despite its cool subject matter, which ticks off relevant themes such as feminism, gender identity, and domestic violence in the context of Bolsonaro’s Brazil, which is marked by homophobia and machismo (according to the film, the country has the world’s 5th highest femicide rate), Regra 34 is relatively conventional in terms of its approach, offering little visual satisfaction. With obvious limitations – the protagonist lives a second life online for much of the film – Murat does little to explore the moral conflict between the private and public lives of the protagonist, who wants to make a career out of defending women from abuse and relies strictly on the provocative force of the film. With a confident and intimidating performance, the protagonist has few tools to overcome her status in a film that is uncomfortable, confrontational, and political, but one that lacks the expressionism of Malgré la nuit (Philippe Grandrieux) or the depth of Touch Me Not (r. Adina Pintilie).

Still from Tengo sueños eléctricos ©Wrong Men North
Still from Tengo sueños eléctricos ©Wrong Men North

To me, the festival’s highlight, which boosted my confidence in the event’s regenerative power, was Tengo sueños eléctricos, the debut feature of Costa Rican-born director Valentina Maurel. Awarded with Silver Leopards for Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress, Tengo sueños eléctricos builds on the promising beginnings of Lucía en el Limbo, a short film about teenage disinhibition selected at Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique in 2019. One of the film’s most powerful images is the opening scene, which sets the tone and highlights the toxic father-daughter relationship that underpins its entire plot. From the backseat, looking through the windshield at their father’s unleashed rage, the two sisters react differently. The younger one cowers in fear while Eva, the older sister, peers questioningly at the father-turned beast. Maurel uses silence very well in certain key moments of the film, aware of its expressive power if it’s also backed by a performance that is up to par. And both protagonists Daniela Marín Navarro and Reinaldo Amien Gutiérrez (as Palomo) deliver on the promise, sustaining a connection that is as strong in interchanges as it is in gestures. Owing to films such as La Ciénaga (dir. Lucrecia Martel) and Tarde para morir joven (dir. Dominga Sotomayor), Maurel uses the tension of the decimated family unit to explore a suffocating, complicit, yet violent closeness. Employing handheld shots at times, taken from Eva’s perspective, Tengo sueños eléctricos distances itself from typical coming-of-age fare by reversing roles, as sometimes it is the father himself who has to do some growing up, but especially using the protagonist’s revelation that the “electric dreams”, as Palomo poetically self-describes his normalized hysterical outbursts, need not necessarily be part of her present.

Film critic and programmer, she collaborates with various international film festivals. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Senses of Cinema, Kinoscope, Indiewire, Film Comment, Vague Visages and Desistfilm. In Spanish she has written for Caimán Cuadernos de Cine and in Romanian she collaborates with FILM magazine. Programmer and coordinator of Tenerife Shorts.