Highs and Lows on the Piazza Grande By Élise Domenach

in 59th Locarno International Film Festival

by Élise Domenach

Returning to Paris after the 60th edition of the Locarno Film Festival, one could not avoid the complaints in the media about this year’s edition. “A sullen year”, lamented “Le Monde”. True: after watching so many movies built upon nearly identical narratives in the International Competition, the movie critic gets a little nervous, and ends up forgetting the unique experience she gets in Locarno — of sharing the pleasures of cinema with a large and enthusiastic audience, in outdoor as well as indoor screenings. At bottom, her discomfort adds up to a single puzzlement: How is it that just three narrative skeletons fit so many of the movies presented? The love and redemption of young adults defined Jaime Marques’ Thieves (Ladrones), Jorge Cramez’ The Golden Helmet (O Capacete Dourado), Ulrike von Ribbeck’s Früher oder später and Dong-seok No’s Boys of Tomorrow (Woo-ri-e-ge nae-il-eun up-da) the courage and dedication of a forty-year-old spouse in Bernard Emond’s Against All Hope (Contre toute espérance), and the dignity and humiliation of the underprivileged all over the world in Claudio Del Punta’s Haïti Chérie, Amor Hakkar’s La maison jaune and Hiner Saleem’s Under the Rooftops of Paris (Sous les toits de Paris).

Such monotony in the screenplays was particularly unfortunate this year, when so many breathtaking first features (rewarded in Locarno) are screened in celebration of the 60th anniversary of the film festival. After a fresh look on Marco Bellochio’s Fists in the Pocket (I pugni in tasca, 1965), Claude Chabrol’s Bitter Reunion (Le Beau Serge, 1958), or Mike Leigh’s Bleak Moments (1971), one wonders why young film directors nowadays choose to take hold of a camera, what makes this gesture necessary. An even deeper discomfort is caused by the list of prizewinners. The decisions of the jury (and its president, Zhang Ke Jia) were in no way controversial. Yet, by rewarding Kobayashi, Ramos and Green/Costa/Farocki (i.e. filmmakers who are not newcomers) the jury confesses that this year’s selection didn’t harbor any new talent. It brings to the forefront a branch of cinema which is difficult to defend, even though it is often praised in cinephile circles: Conceptual cinema.

Masahiro Kobayashi’s Rebirth (Ai no yokan, winner of the Golden Leopard), Philippe Ramos’ Captain Ahab (Capitaine Achab, Best Director), and Eugène Green, Pedro Costa and Harun Farocki’s Memories (Jeonju Digital Project 2007, Special Jury Prize) are various attempts at challenging the limits of the film medium, by way of the straightforward repetition of identical shots in identical scenes, or by way of symbolism, or by way of exploring the possibilities of the video medium.

Of the three films, Ramos’s unorthodox representation of “Moby Dick” is the only one that genuinely uncovers new possibilities for the film medium. As Pascale Ferran in Lady Chatterley, Ramos doesn’t attempt to adapt Herman Melville’s novel, but develops a parallel story based on the book. Melville focuses on a segment of Ahab’s life, his heroic quest for the white whale, and emphasizes the cosmic and biblical dimensions of his struggle with Moby Dick. Ramos instead imagines an entire life for his Capitaine Ahab, from his birth to his death. He investigates the most intimate springs that later motivate his quest for the white whale. Ramos imagines the frightening Ahab — who has scared generations of readers — as a child, raised in the forest by a lonely hunter (Jean-François Stevenin), and then educated by a severe woman (Dominique Blanc). As he grows, the boy becomes very independent, and suffers from an acute perception of the humiliations of the human condition. Ramos found natural settings in Sweden and France in which to shoot this part of the movie: The landscapes evoke the American forests in Nantucket, and Walt Whitman and Mark Twain’s transcendental depictions of nature. Ramos puts his stamp on the settings of his movie, paying particular attention to their trappings: His shots look like symbolist paintings or 19th century still lives. The film is divided into chapters, each one centered on a different character who knew Ahab intimately, and who tells us his story in voiceover. Towards the end, when Ramos comes to Ahab’s life on the sea, the movie crosses paths with the novel. But Ramos adopts a different narrator; it’s not Ishmael but Starbuck (Jacques Bonnafé) who is speaking. The expressivity of each setting, the specificity of the music in each chapter (from Mazzy Star to Gabriel Fauré), the literary quality of the voiceover (which sounds like Melville; quite a feat!) — every element of Ramos’ film expresses his faith in the medium. Thanks to the amazing performance of Denis Lavant as Capitaine Achab, Ramos renders irrelevant any comparisons with John Huston’s earlier Moby Dick film, or Gregory Peck’s interpretation of Ahab in it. In fact, Ramos’ unique style of composition and narration, and his unique sense of music, serve to revive the myth of Moby Dick. The film is never abstract or intellectual. Relying as it does on symbolism, this representation of Ahab’s life rises above the ordinary, beyond the paintings of the life and death of sailors in late 19th century Massachusetts, and points toward a vision of the human condition itself. Incorporating the expressive powers of music, literature and painting, the movie adds to a long tradition of artistic representation of Moby Dick.

Such a clear domination of conceptual cinema in the International Competition had the effect of clearing the ground for the Piazza Grande to show not only commercial movies (such as Adam Shankman’s musical Hairspray and Adrienne Shelley’s Waitress) but also a fair number of good spectacle and narrative movies, telling love stories and family dramas set against historical backgrounds. Thus, the wide audience on the Piazza Grande (6000 people every night) got the chance to see quality commercial movies, such as Kenneth Bi’s The Drummer, which begins with a Hong Kong mafia plot before paying homage to the tradition of Zen drummers in Taiwan. Three movies screened on the Piazza Grande clearly found favor with the public: Frank Oz’ Death at a Funeral, which won the Public prize UBS, Samuel Benchétrit’s I Always Wanted to Be a Gangster (J’ai toujours rêvé d’ètre un gangster), and Daniele Luchetti’s My Brother Is an Only Child (Mio fratello è figlio unico). The first two are comedies, built upon efficient traditional models.

With Death at a Funeral, director Oz models his screenplay after British black comedies, starring a group of amazing comics: Ewen Bremner, Peter Dinklage, Matthew Macfadyen, Kris Marshall, Alan Tudyk, Rupert Graves. The result is hilarious. I witnessed that night, on Piazza Grande, the happiest smile of the week. A sixty-year-old woman wouldn’t leave the piazza after the screening. Clearly, she’d had the time of her life, watching this mischievous comedy set in the English countryside, as a wealthy family prepares for the funeral of its patriarch. Oz, who began his career as a puppeteer for “The Muppet Show”, is awfully good at camp characters. Within no more than ten minutes, we get acquainted with Daniel, who’s secretly longing for a better life and a career as a writer but plays the role of the “good son”; his elder brother Robert, a famous novelist; their cousin Martha, who tries to hide her boyfriend Simon’s eccentric behavior (he’s accidentally swallowed a hallucinogenic drug), and Simon himself, who keeps interrupting the funeral and ultimately appears naked on the roof. Even though the comedy is full of clichéd characters (homosexuals, drug addicts, cripples, etc), it managed to create a magic moment on the Piazza, with six thousand people laughing together, looking at one another in surprise.

In his film I Always Wanted to Be a Gangster, the French theatre and film director Samuel Benchétrit pays tribute to Italian sketch comedy, as well as to burlesque silent movies. He directs four sets of comic characters, all connected to the same cafeteria on the side of a highway: An amateur armed robber (Edouard Baer) whose attractive victim is herself involved in the robbery game (Anna Mouglalis); two crooks (Bouli Lanners and Serge Larivière) who’ve kidnapped a suicidal teenager; two desperate singers (Arno and Alain Bashung), and five old men who are returning to the thrills of the criminal life (Jean Rochefort, Laurent Terzieff, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Venantino Venantini, Roger Dumas). The clumsiness and misfortunes of the troupe of comedians result in a joyful comedy, shot in black and white. We didn’t except that much from the author of Janis and John (Janis et John, 2003).

Daniele Luchetti’s success on the Piazza Grande (My Brother Is an Only Child)was of a very different sort. The Italian director eschews comedic formula, pursuing instead a flourishing tradition in Italian cinema, juxtaposing the lives, loves and coming of age of a group of characters (usually families) with the social and political changes in Italy over the years. His film’s success in Locarno echoes the Italian box office (6,142,834 Euros, or 1,031,510 admissions — almost 1/50th of the population — as of August 15th). Within a few months, the two young actors playing the brothers (Riccardo Scamarcio and Elio Germano) became stars in Italy. After a screening in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, the movie began an amazing run in its native land — very nearly matching the traffic of a Christmas comedy!

My Brother is an Only Child is based upon Antonio Pennacchi’s novel “Il Fasciocomunista”; the adaptation is credited to Luchetti, Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli. Petraglia and Rulli have written a number of rich screenplays for Gianni Amelio, Francesco Rosi, Michele Placido and Marco Risi, beginning with Marco Tullio Giordana’s much-heralded The Best of Youth (La Meglio Gioventù). The narrative plays out against a powerful historical backdrop: The fight between the communist partyto which Manrico, the elder brother, belongs, and the fascists, to which the younger Accio belongs, in the Sixties. But for all the focus on politics, the film isn’t really political at all; rather, it’s a finely drawn and engaging study of two personalities, seemingly in sharp contrast, that prove awfully alike in the end. Manrico is handsome and intelligent, a smart catch for any of the young women eyeing him. But his younger brother, nicknamed “Nasty”, is a born rebel, causing trouble at the seminary to which his parents have so misguidedly sent him. He questions everything with vigor. The narration sides with Accio to tell us the story of the brothers’ rivalry, both in politics and for the heart of the beautiful Francesca.

We end up feeling sympathy for “Nasty” the fascist. A final song mentions a “nice boy”, “an angel”. Watching his political dream of finding a decent place to live for every working family in town finally come true, we cannot help thinking of De Sica’s Umberto D. and other masterpieces of neo-realism representing the working class after the war, dreaming of a nice place to live … but the sensible depiction of one family’s love-hate dynamic pushes the story in another direction. It evokes Italian family dramas centered on the second child, such as Bellochio’s Fists in the Pocket.

For better and for worse, from beginning to end, from the International Competition to the Piazza Grande selection, this year’s Locarno proved self-referential. Intentionally as well as unintentionally, it offered a retrospective look at the cinema celebrated here for the last 60 years: Conceptual, and sometimes melodramatic.