In recent years, the Festival del film Locarno has distinguished itself among the more prominent international fests by packing its slate with daring work from under-sung filmmakers, spotlighting debut directors, and premiering some of the most strange and interesting work from established ones. And oddly enough, it seems that Locarno’s audience and jury have adapted to it. This year the Golden Leopard, the festival’s top prize, went to Albert Serra’s Story of My Death, a bizarre, relentlessly spare 150-minute period piece matching Casanova with Count Dracula that the director himself calls “unfuckable.” While not every film could live up (or down) to that oblique designation, many more of the festival’s best films issued similar challenges through their duration, structure, tone, or a combination of the three.
Indeed, perhaps the most loved and talked about film at this year’s festival, and winner of the Special Jury Prize, was a nearly three-hour diary film by a Portuguese artist who is best known for his work behind the scenes. Joaquim Pinto’s What Now? Remind Me is a brilliantly composed document of the director’s own trials—after living for 20 years with HIV—with a new experimental medication. Shot over four years, the film follows Pinto while he witnesses his own changes and suffering from various side effects, as his longtime partner, several dogs, and the landscapes of the Azores and continental countryside comfort him. The film cuts between his present endurances and memories of work, love, and discovery as Pinto looks back on his life in the European film industry, having for the past several decades worked in various capacities for Raúl Ruiz, Rosa von Praunheim, Werner Schroeter, and Robert Kramer. Tender and raw, yet without melodrama, What Now? considers the intersections of existence through the body, and through history, in relation to and in art: “When we go back to dust, life will sigh with relief.”
Taking a rather different approach to cinema’s materialization of history, Pays Barbare, the new film by veteran found-footage filmmakers Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, closely examines images from private archives that document Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia from 1936 to 1941. Through magnifying lenses, held in white-gloved hands, or run back and forth and in slow motion, the battered photochemical traces yield unfathomable minutiae, tiny gestures of humanity or violence behind everyday rituals or nationalist spectacle, scrubbed from the depths of the image through the filmmakers’ infinitesimal analysis. Cavalier white men pose with and prod at supine and bare-breasted Ethiopian women in the paternalistic gesture of beneficence and civilization, behind which Mussolini’s massive shadow can be plainly discerned. But the film isn’t content to just summon weighty historical content; it allows the specific lightness of each moment to interrupt (along with a few decrepit old songs on the soundtrack), making the experience of viewing fragmentary—each small visual pleasure indistinguishable from a corresponding horror. Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi: “Ours is a dual reading, that of the images themselves and the way in which they were consumed.”
Winner of the Filmmakers of the Present section, Manakamana is the latest film produced by Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Two previous S.E.L. efforts, Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Leviathan and Libbie Dina Cohn and J.P. Sniadecki’s People’s Park, premiered at Locarno last year, and while these works exploit the athleticism and temporal elasticity of digital cameras, Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s film embraces the structural limits of the length of a 16mm film reel to capture the ten-minute cable-car ride from the base of a Nepalese mountain to the temple of the goddess Manakamana. For those who regard the “ethnography” part of Sensory Ethnography with suspicion, Manakamana offers a kind of humanist corrective, observing and listening in on the small cars’ few riders as they approach and descend the holy site, noting incongruities (devout elders, a trio of heavy metal guys, a pair of sarangi players) and allowing odd pockets of humor (a melting ice cream, an unruly kitten). But even these details amount to a simple but suggestive structuralism that quietly insists on an alternate economy of attention and viewership.
Another film constructed around long takes, Zhengfan Yang’s Distant (Yuan Fang) is something of an independent Chinese remake of Songs from the Second Floor: a succession of 13 compositions, each framed with some remove from their subjects, often to such an extent that one must patiently wait for each shot’s subject to appear or become clear. Small actions unfold within the frame—a man hunts for a lost cell phone, an old man traverses a subway station, a little girl unleashes fish into a swimming pool—and it becomes the spectator’s task to pick them out and follow them. The film thus contrives a little game with the viewer, but embedded in each seemingly mundane sequence shot is the implication of critique, a witty observation about modern life, or perhaps just a pleasurable uncertainty about the film’s fictive and documentary content.
Something of a connoisseur of mundanity, the prolific Korean director Hong Sang-soo, who won the festival’s Leopard for the Best Direction, has two new films this year: the New York Film Festival will be offering Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, but Locarno had Our Sunhi, an even more reduced and deadpan effort than most of Hong’s films, which as a rule involve wayward film professors, young students, and late nights of soju-fueled mistakes. Much like other recent Hong efforts—like the brilliant Oki’s Movie, which had a momentary release in New York this spring—the new film has a tight, molecular structure in which a handful of men busily orbit the title character, the film’s unknowable female center. But, as always, this seemingly corny theme of unknowable femaleness becomes itself a trap for all involved, as the characters—reticent, unremarkable film student Sunhi, her ex-boyfriend, her professor, and a director she knew from school—find themselves locked in a cycle of repetitive language and awkward, drunken altercations. Even more minimalistically maddening than usual, Hong’s arc finds the characters rehearsing these same fumbled social situations almost in desperation until the cycle is complete and the spell broken, freeing Sunhi if not her hapless, lumpish suitors.
Another film about filmmaking in the key of Hong Sang-soo, Corneliu Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism is lighter than the director’s previous international release, Police, Adjective, but is itself a collection of small delights. The plot setups lead next-to-nowhere: the suggestions of mystery or a surprise second-half fizzle in a happily unpredictable way.
The best scenes, in fact, are when nothing at all is happening, particularly a set of elliptic “getting to know you” conversations between the film’s two lead characters: a paunchy mid-career Romanian film director, and the starring actress of his film in production. When they aren’t preparing for scenes in a fumbly kind of foreplay, they talk past each other in debates about the anxiety-producing freedom of digital cinema, and how various cuisines developed according to their cooking and eating implements—in either case, the tyranny of the apparatus.