Locarno 2018: Festival roundup

With the 71st Locarno Film Festival coming to a close at the weekend and the prizes awarded, our contributor John Bleasdale notes some of the highs and lows of Swiss based celebration of film.

There were many strong independent and frequently eponymous women at Locarno this year. Meet Sibel, for instance, a young woman shunned by her rural Turkish community because she is unable to speak. She manages to communicate partly via a whistling language which the villagers use to communicate while the women are working in the fields. She is partly protected by her village mayor father, heartily despised by her ambitious sister, and does her best to reconcile herself to her community, by killing a wolf which is haunting a local landmark rich in magic and mythology, the Bride Rock.

All her efforts and indeed her life are endangered when she discovers a fugitive. Directed by Cagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti, Sibel has a slight plot reminiscent of Whistle Down the Wind, but aside from the anthropological interest in the community – which is generally seen as backward and repressive – it is Damla Sönmez’s eponymous performance that leaves scorch marks on the screen.

Alice T. led to first time actress Andra Guți picking up the award for best female performance as the 16-year-old protagonist. Although dealing with the frequently fraught topic of teenage pregnancy, Radu Muntean’s Romanian film is more Juno than Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, and your reaction to the film will depend a great deal on how endearing/brattish you find the protagonist, but it is nevertheless a smartly made film with a sly brashness.  

A more mature piece on a more mature protagonist, documentarian Kent Jones’s first fictional feature Diane is a deep and nuanced character study, starring Mary Kay Place as a widow and mother whose days are spent on hospital visits, volunteer work with the poor and keeping tabs on her adult addict son who seems to be heading for an early grave. The film stands as a celebration of values that seem sadly seem almost quaint in the current political climate in the US: empathy, community, generosity.

When a character burns her hand on a stove during a family gathering, the whole family flinch with pain. But there’s a price to be paid as the family has its secrets, its history and guilt. Diane herself could have stepped out of a short story by Alice Munro or a novel by Elizabeth Strout and it is credit to Jones’ screenplay and Mary Kay Pace’s performance that both the character and the film feel so movingly real.


Family is also the subject of Liang Ying’s A Family Tour. It tells the story of exiled Chinese film director – Yang Shu played by Gong Zhe, turning a festival visit in Taiwan into a reunion with her mother (Nai An), facilitated by her artist husband (Pete Teo). Based on his own experiences as an exiled director living in Hong Kong, Liang’s film is a poignant meditation on the sacrifices we make for art and politics and how the personal and the political intersects.

Another Chinese film which sees the past and the present intermingle was Qui Sheng’s Suburban Birds. A young engineer looks back on his childhood as he and his team investigate a case of subsidence in his old neighbourhood. It stands as a good metaphor as the ground has literally shifted but is that even his childhood? There’s a gently maintained ambiguity that keeps us as off-balance as the ground the engineers investigate. A nostalgic look back on the apparent certainties of childhood, Sheng’s film feels like a twaddle-less version of The Tree of Life.

Milorad Krstic’s animated art world noir Ruben Brandt, Collector packs so many allusions and references into its 94-minute running time, it leaves little time to actually question what the flip it’s all about. A famous psychotherapist is forced to steal thirteen of the world’s most famous paintings in order to settle a series of terrifying nightmares, aided by a female cat burglar and pursued by an investigator called Mike Kowalski. The cheeky nod to Monsters Inc. is only one of a plethora of quotes, citations and borrowing, making the film as light-fingered a trickster as its main characters.

A noirish dream also plays out in the Golden Leopard winner A Land Imagined but in the no-mans-land of migrant workers in Singapore, a police officer seems as intent on losing the plot as finding his missing man. Receiving a Special Mention, British artist Richard Billingham presented Ray & Liz, a kitchen sink drama that has left the unwashed dishes in there for some time. A portrait of his own neglectful upbringing and his parents’ slide into alcoholism and poverty, the film strives for an arm’s-length objectivity, but beneath one suspects a bubbling rage.

The 71st Locarno Film Festival will take place from 1-11 August 2018.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty

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