Genre Films in the International Competition

in 75th Locarno International Film Festival

by Sarah Stutte

That the new artistic director of the Locarno Film Festival, Giona A. Nazzaro, has a penchant for genre films has become widely known two years into the job. Last year, his selection of genre films was limited to the Piazza and the side sections. However, for this year’s 75th anniversary edition of the festival, a striking number of horror flicks, crime thrillers, mysteries and zombie stories were included in the International Competition.

The Malaysian-Indonesian FIPRESCI winner Stone Turtle, for example, combines various styles and links them in an elegant and fluid way. Motifs from the rape and revenge subgenre, which has historically had an impact with its lurid, exploitative portrayal of sex and violence since the 70s, are presented in a completely new and surprisingly different way in director Woo Ming Jin’s film. The ritualistic-folkloristic elements of Stone Turtle are reminiscent of folk horror tales such as The Wicker Man or The Witch. In addition, the complex yet always intriguingly arranged story is spiced up with a pinch of animated fairytale sequence as well as a sci-fi format that moves independently of time and space in a manner reminiscent of Groundhog Day.

In the Portuguese entry Tommy Guns (Nação valente), which won Best European Film and a “Junior Jury Award”, one can recognise references to films such as Apocalypse Now, Lord of the Flies and the Colombian Sundance hit Monos from 2019. Set in 1974, director Carlos Conceição’s critique of fascism, the civil war and Portuguese colonial power in Angola is a slow burner, relying on quiet observations at the beginning. These give a precise insight into the emotional state and living conditions of the local population on the one hand and the mostly very young Portuguese soldiers on the other. The force of the situation is suddenly unleashed in an emotional, cold and brutal scene that leaves us shocked. Between surrealism and reality, horror is thus thrust, culminating in a reference to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, symbolising the civilian undead as exploited victims of war rise from their graves.

The Austrian film Serviam – I Will Serve (Serviam – ich will dienen), which also received a “Junior Jury Award”, is set in a convent boarding school in the 80s where the girls wear penitential belts and experience spiritual abuse. In addition, mysterious events occur on the abandoned upper floor of the building, to which the girls have no access. Director Ruth Mader says this special horror film was inspired by her own “not very good” experiences as a former convent student.

The result is an extremely interesting film that unsettles the audience almost exclusively through its music, disturbing dialogue – revealed, for example, in a conversation between a diabolical figure and a nun – and stylistic camera angles. In Locarno, Mader stated that “I myself like thrillers very much and I’m also a fan of Alfred Hitchcock. I think the story offers that, for example, by hiding the girl. Fear is an overriding theme here and omnipresent. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was a big inspiration for the film, but also John Carpenter’s Halloween – both influences are reflected in the long takes of the corridors.”

But not all genre films in the big competition were greeted with equal enthusiasm. Some were not at all well-received by either audiences or critics. For instance, the French neo-noir Bowling Saturne caused a stir with an unnecessarily brutal scene in which the protagonist beats a woman to death – first with his fists, then with a lamp – and her torture is shown in minute detail. Surprising that a a female filmmaker – and none other than the French cult director Patricia Mazuy (Peaux de vaches) – missed the point about toxic masculinity and moreover that the predictable plot was reminiscent of a TV thriller.

The new film by Russian veteran Alexander Sokurov, Fairytale (Skazka), also failed to arouse much enthusiasm. On paper, the idea of having Napoleon, Churchill, Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini walk through a dream-like purgatory because they are denied access to heaven seems inventive. The whole film is also extremely visually exciting, as Sokurov puts together archival images of the rulers and recordings of their speeches to create a manipulated collage that is fascinating and initially entertaining.

But over time these conversations become tiring – and not only for Jesus Christ, who has to lie on a cot the entire time due to his injuries from the cross. The most impressive scene is probably the one in which a wave of the dictators’ victims make their way through this abysmal dreamworld, and the oppressors have to look into the countless faces of horror they have caused.

Sarah Stutte
Edited by Lesley Chow