Lakeside Myths

in 76th Locarno International Film Festival

by David Katz

It’s uncanny recalling the first time I’d even heard of the Locarno Film Festival. Already an eager film scribbler at age 21, I noted Criticwire’s (Indiewire’s old film criticism platform) call for applications for their 2012 Critics’ Academy at the festival. Little did I know of the recurrence of these schemes across festivals globally, but I saw it as a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My application was rejected, but I was clearly undeterred.

Later on, Locarno became visible to me for a different reason. My twenties were partly composed of glimpsing at these elite international film gatherings from afar, through professional coverage and social media fragments, and I developed a vague sense of each festival’s identity. A spurious notion of what a “Berlin” film was, a “Quinzaine” film was, and so forth. And Locarno somehow appeared as a bit of a safe space, or privileged space, for a certain type of experimental A-list auteur, sheltered from the misunderstanding and flummoxed reactions their work might receive in Cannes especially. It was for the Serra’s, the Hong’s, the Costa’s. And clearly much more that eluded this reductive view: the reputation-rehabilitating retrospectives, the breakthroughs and maudits, the social good cheer that seemed to permeate amongst the delegates lucky enough to be on the invite list.

Disembarking for my first Locarno earlier this month, I was gratified to see the film curation and the overall atmosphere live up to my expectations. Coupled with the rigorous work of absorbing 17 competition films in fewer days, it was a richly welcoming environment, peppered with everything you could want in a festival fortnight. And even if I wasn’t universally swayed by the entire competition, I didn’t doubt any of the films and voices’ rationale for being selected, and put on this platform for film culture to explore or reacquaint themselves with, the latter the case for the more well-known artists in the line-up, such as Lav Diaz or Sylvain George.

Of the newer voices privileged in the competition line-up, I had more time than many of my colleagues for Leonor Teles’ Baan, a Portuguese first feature, with the director herself following up her cinematography work on João Canijo’s Berlin 2023 prizewinner Bad Living. Another striking element of watching so many contemporary festival features, typically in a work context, is that the ages of the filmmakers are catching up to mine. As a 1990 baby, many of my generational coevals are enjoying their first major festival premieres. And with this, it’s also warming to compare the shared life experience we hold, despite not often living in the same continent or conversing in the same tongue. A concept in film criticism I always reach for is Jonathan Rosenbaum’s notion of “global synchronicity”, developed in a public letter chain he conducted with Adrian Martin, Alexander Howarth, Kent Jones and Nicole Brenez in the 2000s. We are not entirely responsible for what we’re exposed to and forced to endure: perhaps our agency is partly illusory, and the forces of global technocapitalism and environmental upheaval carry us all on their whims, whether in Bogotá or Beijing.

So I looked at the predicament of L (Carolina Miragaia) in Baan, and saw myself. The entropy and alienation; the career prospects eroded by technocratic forces and a kind of light generational warfare (although such is life and work, anyone might protest). She begins a casual but passionate relationship with K (Meghna Lall) a Thai-Torontonian, who then proceeds to “ghost” her, as in the modern parlance, leaving her emotionally at sea.

Early observers have rightly drawn attention to the soapy aspects of the plotting, and maybe future features from Teles will have more developed dramaturgy, keeping pace with her natural command of visuals (in spite of their own reliance on quotations from Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-Hsein’s work). But no other feature in Locarno’s main competition was as insightful on how the modern world can hurt and estrange you from yourself, and also the routes for nursing that confusion; it doesn’t formally name this offshoot of psychoanalytic counselling, but when L strums her un-amplified electric guitar for the first time in who knows how long, sorting through potential chord progressions for a demo track, we have true “music therapy”, and a grateful pathway to healing.


David Katz