Arduous Hunt For A Golden Leopard

in 64th Locarno International Film Festival

by Pascal Blum

The 64th Locarno Film Festival’s selection for the International Competition — 20 movies in the running for the Pardo d’oro or Golden Leopard — resembled a tourist-trap tapas bar: an eclectic offering, but no taste whatsoever. The menu ranged from preposterously stagey cinéma de l’emo dealing with pale poets and squatters lurking in Lyon (Nicolas Klotz’s and Elisabeth Perceval’s Low Life), to pointless American high-school comedy (Azazel Jacobs’ Terri)and skimpily constructed thrillers about miscommunication and alienation (Among Us [Onder Ons] by Marco van Geffen; Danielle Arbid’s Beirut Hotel) as well as Frederic Choffat’s and Julie Gilbert’s portentously blurry nonsense Mangrove and writer / director / editor / cinematographer Mike Cahill’s creative writing sci-fi homework Another Earth (which dreams up another planet where better films may or may not exist).

 It’s tough to stomach that the laugh-out-loud-awful telenovela Last Days in Jerusalem (Tanathur), (sort of) directed by Israel’s Tawfik Abu Wael, would be programmed by any festival dedicated to the art of cinema. But then, Fernand Melgar’s fly-on-the-wall account of inmates awaiting deportation in a Swiss prison, Special Flight (Vol spécial),was thrown in for good measure — an obvious political choice. Some notable auteurs presented underwhelming work: Mia Hansen-Løve’s éducation sentimentale third feature, Goodbye, First Love (Un amour de jeunesse),though elegantly shot, couldn’t escape its soppy clichés. Centering around the 18th century rebel Louis Mandrin, the costume drama Smuggler’s Songs (Les chants de Mandrin) —directed by Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche — had charm and resonance, but looked wooden and cheap even by the standards of low-budget filmmaking.

Much hope was invested in Romanian director Adrian Sitaru’s drama Best Intentions (Din dragoste cu cele mai bune intentii), which revolves around a young man who, when his mother falls ill, worries to the point of madness. It worked best as a sociological study of a man whose way of justifying his actions — gathering information, using contacts — breaks down when faced with the rules of the hospital, where trust and experience are crucial. However the camerawork, telling the story through arbitrary point-of-view shots, quickly grew annoying.

Or take two promising dramas that, although well directed, felt half-baked: Russian-American director Julia Loktev’s chamber-piece for hikers, The Loneliest Planet, delivered on intimate scenes, but, plot-wise didn’t convince. Sebastián Lelio’s gritty survival tragedy The Year of the Tiger (El año del tigre), set against the backdrop of the 2010 earthquake in Chile, went off like a rocket, but was thwarted by an endless drunk-scene. Eventually, Milagros Mumenthaler’s quiet, soignée three-sisters-drama Back to Stay (Abrir puertas y ventanas), striking a strange balance between subtle performances and heavy-handed storytelling, emerged as the least-disliked contender.

While the artistic director Olivier Père’s appears to be trying to escape a past affinity with a somewhat trite arthouse fare, this year’s blend of indie drama and genre stories possessed an unnerving disposition for sentimentality and symbolism. It’s difficult to see how he can shake off Locarno visitors’ unspoken tradition of avoiding the International Competition and diving into other sections, such as the retrospective (this time dedicated to the great Vincente Minnelli), the Cineasti del Presente programme — or any other section for that matter. Most convincing was the sublime experimental work by directors Albert Serra (The Names of Christ [El noms de Crist] and Lord Worked Wonders In Me [El senyor ha fet en mi meravelles]), Ben Rivers (Sack Barrow) and Raya Martin (Good Night, Spain [Buenas noches, España] and Boxing in the Philippine Islands) — all of whom presented films with bold voice and an artistic visual rhythm.