The word on the street is that the Ticinese town of Locarno, Switzerland, only comes to life during the international film festival, thereafter returning to general cultural dormancy. The high-profile event appears in August like a planetary body, absorbing the local infrastructure and economy into its orbit; businesses are decked in the festival’s trademark yellow-black leopard patterns, gymnasiums are turned into movie halls and publicity hoardings look to cinema for inspiration. It’s indeed hard to divine the nature of the town underneath this two-week masque.
The town, however, has its own ways of asserting its identity. If the festival dominates the visual landscape, the soundtrack remains very much of the place. Motorbikes with infernal exhausts, Sisyphean workers dragging trolleys up cobbled pathways and helicopters and ambulances zooming in and out of local hospitals are constant reminders of the presence of a thriving and often abrasive local life.
The helicopters and ambulances are also reminders of health and sickness, which Locarno, despite its paradisiacal landscape off the Lake Maggiore, seems animated by. It isn’t just in the fact of the pandemic, belied by the unmasked crowds and the nation’s now lenient health regulations. It is also in that Ticino is a pharmaceutical hub, a detail reflected in the proliferation of hoardings for drugs and health insurance.
Medicine, disease and death, as it happens, are also recurring elements in the films of Douglas Sirk, who received a monumental 43-film retrospective at this year’s festival, held from 3-13 August. Once an accomplished theatre director at the heart of the modernist movement in Germany, Sirk left for the US in 1937 for a chequered career in Hollywood. It was in the 1950s, when he collaborated with Universal Pictures, that he made the series of lush melodramas he is most known for today, such as All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation Of Life (1959).
Curated by Bernard Eisenschitz and Roberto Turigliatto, the retrospective allowed audiences to not just observe the evolution of Sirk as a film artist but also find underexplored cross-currents between different phases of his career. As a result, the hard-edged mystery movies he made in the 1940s, notably Sleep, My Love (1948) and Shockproof (1949), seem to contain the seeds of the later melodramas, just as the melodramas pick up disturbing undercurrents from the crime pictures. At the very least, the retrospective should prove instrumental in nuancing the existing critical line around Sirk as a maker of Technicolor weepies.
“As far as I am concerned, heaven is stingy,” Sirk once said. In Alexander Sokurov’s Fairytale, the marquee entry of the 17-film strong competition section at the festival, four political figures from the 20th century try to see if they can get entry to heaven. Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and Churchill find themselves in purgatory in this hypnotic if elusive work. They make petty quips about each other, encounter doppelgängers and reflect on the tragedies they have presided over. Drawing from both classical painting and AI-based imaging technology, Sokurov’s digital chamber drama is designed like a historical fever dream—only that the 20th century slumber isn’t over yet.
Fairytale beholds the world’s horrors from a melancholy, even amused distance, but the wounds are still raw in Jan Baumgartner’s The DNA Of Dignity, a moving documentary about the work of forensic scientists involved in identifying victims buried in mass graves during the Balkan War. They excavate bones, assemble what remains of them into a skeleton, carry out DNA tests to ascertain identities and hand over the remains to grieving families. Baumgartner’s film is a fascinating picture of how the abstractions of science eventually take form as human stories. Its success lies in finding the right tone and distance for a subject as grave and delicate.
“The war was first fought with bombs, since then it has become silent,” says one grieving mother in The DNA Of Dignity. The notion of war as a permanent condition, a state of mind, courses through Azerbaijani film-maker Hilal Baydarov’s Sermon To The Fish. A traumatised young soldier returns to his village after the war, finding it empty and desolate. Baydarov weaves this premise into a spare landscape film in which spectacular vistas of barren countryside are punctuated by human figures prostrating or scrunched up, rarely showing their faces. The film’s greatest idea involves a photo-bombing dog.
Locarno’s own landscape is more modest. Hemmed in by mountains, the town comes across as intimate, almost claustrophobic. The festival venues are located a few minutes from each other, a fact that makes encounters with acquaintances and friends pleasurably inevitable. The steep, narrow lanes that house countless restaurants all flow into the Piazza Grande, the 8,000-seat open-air screen at the heart of the festival that hosts screenings every evening. The lineup at the Piazza Grande tends towards popular works such as Bullet Train (2022), the Brad Pitt starrer that opened the festival.
Film festivals like Locarno are, however, paradoxical things. As beacons of film culture, they are supposed to allow audiences to get a sense of cinema’s future and past. Yet the ideals of a festival often crash against the everyday realities of participation. Subject to unending screenings and conversations, the mind wanders, the films bleed into one another, frequently losing context. The movies seek to take the viewer on journeys to far-flung worlds, existing and imagined, but the physical reality of spectatorship resists easy transportation. The sweat on your back as you settle into your seat, the fight to get a half-decent meal between screenings, the gravity of undone laundry, all keep reminding you of the here and now.
Moreover, the glut of films can result in an audiovisual bulimia at loggerheads with the goals of the festival. The state of confused reflection that challenging films leave you in is washed away, unfortunately, in the stream of thoughts that the next work provokes.
And the Locarno festival is known for its mix of traditional and challenging programming. If the films playing at the Piazza Grande draw non-cinephilic audiences from the region, the works premiering in competition tend to be at the vanguard of innovation. Last year, the festival ended “Moving Ahead”, a sidebar devoted to more experimental fare. The result was that this year’s Cineasti del Presente, a section showcasing 15 works from early-career film-makers, was dominated by features that may have otherwise made their way to the experimental segment.
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As part of its eco-friendly initiatives under the banner Green Project, Locarno also designated a Green Leopard award in 2022, intending to honour one feature that “best reflects an environmental theme”. The winner of the inaugural edition is Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Matter Out Of Place, a remarkable work tracing the journey of objects not native to the environment they are found in. Shot in about 10 locations around the world including Nepal and the Maldives, the film looks at human-generated waste. Like much of Geyrhalter’s work, Matter has neither voice-over nor interviews, with the viewer trusted with the task of navigating the film’s implications.
Matter juxtaposes the work of waste management personnel from around the world but it does not offer glib answers. Geyrhalter insists his films are not activist; instead, they are documents for future archives about how humans lived at this particular point in history. Indeed, the images in his new film are clear and sharp but ambivalent, leaving the viewer both amazed and repulsed by mankind’s capacity to generate and manage vast amounts of garbage in the remotest stretches. Beauty and ugliness coexist in Matter Out Of Place, which has the capacity to sharpen our ecological consciousness more thoroughly than most cine-pamphlets can. It’s an essential work.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a Bengaluru-based film critic.