A Song Is Born

in 61st Locarno International Film Festival

by Ronald Bergan

Although there was not too much to sing about at Locarno this year, there were plenty of songs used diegetically in many of the films. In Eugène Green’s The Portuguese Nun (A Religiosa Portuguesa), a haunting multi-layered stylised fable, the passionate and melancholy Fado songs, performed by the finest  artists in the field, served as leitmotifs for a French actress seeking love in a ravishingly-shot Lisbon.          

The singer of the title of Diego Martinez Vignatti’s The Tango Singer (La Cantante de Tango), played by the director’s wife Eugenia Ramirez Miori,  tries to cope with the breakup of her marriage mainly through landscape and the seductive songs she sings, which reflect her feelings. Every song moves the narrative along, providing an insight into the characters. The film’s accomplished play on time and space evoked Alain Resnais (one of the signs of an auteur is that one references them), and could have been called On Connaît Le Tango.                

Singing in films seems to have replaced the extinct genre of the musical though there have been some attempts to revive it in France such as Resnais’ On Connaît La Chanson (1997) or Christophe Honoré’s Les Chansons d’Amour (2007). It doesn’t always work as in an Italian film in Locarno, I Dream of the World on Friday (Sogno Il Mondo Il Venerdi) by Pasquale Marrazzo, which had Italian and Arab characters suddenly bursting incongruously into dreadful pop songs in English.              

In the Fipresci winner, the Irish-Netherlands co-production called Nothing Personal (a two-pronged title), the accomplished first feature from the Polish-born Urszula Antoniak, a widower (Stephen Rea) living on the west coast of Ireland and a bitter young divorcee (Lotte Verbeek), have to sing a song as a penalty for getting too personal. (As a refreshing change from the unremitting rock in most films, she actually sings Schubert.) At the centre of the film, which is almost a two-hander, there is a joyous sequence in a pub where typical Irish songs are sung, a break from the isolation of the two characters.                

The Two Horses of Genghis Khan (Chingisiyn Hoyor Zagal), not a very low-budget epic as the title suggests, but a semi-documentary by Byambasuren Davaa, the Mongolian director of The Story of the Weeping Camel and The Cave of the Yellow Dog, follows the singer Uma Chahar Tugchi’s quest to find a horse-shaped violin neck on which are inscribed some lost lyrics of a famous song that recounts the tumultuous history of the Mongolians. The unusual, amusing, illuminating and moving journey through the wild landscapes of Outer and Inner Mongolia, ends with a concert of the completed song.                

Despite the title of the Iranian film, Frontier Blues, by Babak Jalali, a very amusing satiric view of the various eccentric characters in a small frontier town, there is not much singing except for Françoise Hardy’s Tous Les Garçons et Les Filles which comes from a small tape machine played from time to time by the village simpleton to please a couple of truck drivers, and there are some traditional songs sung by a Turkmen, who is the subject of ‘ethnic’ photographs taken by a man from Tehran.

There is a significant comic scene in Filippos Tsitos’ Plato’s Academy (Akadimia Platonos), where the hero Stavros (Antonis Kafetzopoulos, Best Actor winner), an anti-Albanian Greek, discovers that he was actually born Albanian, and is forced to listen and to sing along to Albanian songs in an Albanian restaurant. Previously, he and his buddies, all lazy bigots, had sung ‘Albanian. Albanian. You’ll never become a Greek’ after Greece has beaten Albania in a football match. Songs in films can sometimes say more than dialogue.  

Ronald Bergan