An ideal setting for looking at film

Report on the film Festival Locarno 2015
Locarno Piazza Grande

Projection on the Piazza Grande (© Festival del film Locarno, Massimo Pedrazzini)

Must not the Festival Internazionale del film Locarno be the ideal setting for looking at film? A beautiful Swiss town in the beginning of August when the weather still is nice, but when you can flee inside a movie theatre when it gets too hot? And in the evenings, when it starts to cool off, to watch this particular evening’s world-premiere at the majestic Piazza Grande together with 8000 other people at the traditional screening 9.30 pm? Especially when you are a part of an ecumenical jury that has to select a winner of the ecumenical prize from the 19 films selected for the Concorso internazionale? This means that you not only get to see all the films, but also to discuss them systematically one by one with an international group of intelligent like-minded film buffs. Some films actually improve through being discussed (others, of course, don’t). This was at least my experience of attending this year’s Film Festival in Locarno, the 68th in order.
Award for Ma dar Behesht  -  a film about the value of freedom and hope
I saw about 30 films in the ten days between August 5 and 14, and as mentioned 19 of them were competitors in the Concorso internazionale. As can be seen elsewhere on this site the winner of the Ecumenical prize was the Iranian film Ma dar Behesht (Paradise is the English title, but, from what I heard this is a somewhat rough translation of the original title) by the director Sina Ataiena Dena (Iran/Germany, 2015). The jury’s assignment is to give a prize to a film that portrays, in some outstanding way, humane moral, social and spiritual values. This does not mean that aesthetic considerations are left out of the assessment, just that it is not the only value. Ma dar Behesht is an example of a film that has both. The young female teacher Hanieh works in a primary school somewhere in the suburbs of Teheran, oppressed by the social and political conditions that seem to regulate the minutiae of her entire life. Despite of this, the film expresses moments of freedom, as when the young girls in her school play football against the wishes of the headmistress of the school or dance in the bus going somewhere on a fieldtrip. Hanieh seems to be wearing lipstick, in itself a small act of rebellion.
Ma dar behesht (© Festival del film Locarno)

The film is shot in quite dull colours, appropriate to the drab conditions of living. The director – who had to film in secret, which took him three years! – suggests this is a film about the structural violence that characterizes the Iranian society to a large extent. But one can also say that this is a film about the value of freedom and hope, most often through the very absence of these and what kind of living that is the consequence of such conditions. The actual presence of something like freedom and hope in Ma dar Behesht is only an occasional occurrence. A key shot is Hanieh seen through an aquarium, as to evoke living in a bubble and not having direct access to communication and creative expression. Another scene, which I believe is the only scene where Hanieh actually smiles, comes as a relief for the spectator, evoking some kind of freedom. Applause to the director for making such a brave film under these conditions.
Directing attention for an audience
One of my favourites of the festival is otherwise one of the films also mentioned by the jury. These mentions serve no purpose except for directing the attention to these films for an audience. This is exactly what I wish to do with Bella e perduta by Pietro Marcello (Italy 2015), an unlikely tale of the shepherd Tommaso, also called “L’angelo di Carditello”, a real person who dedicated his life to saving the beautiful Italian palace Carditello from perishing because of its being abandoned to inattention and the mafia’s ravaging. In Marcello’s film, however, this story is told in the manner of a fable, with a speaking buffalo calf by the name of Sarchiapone and a pulchinella – a kind of trickster sent from the underworld to take care of Sarchiapone after the demise of Tommaso.
Bella e perduta (© Festival del film Locarno)

Rather than trying to outline the narrative of this film, which may sound weird but makes perfect sense when you see it, the point of this film, for me at least, is to depict a society where beauty and community with other creatures and nature have been abandoned. Significant is that the only (human) children shown in the film are images of children killed in bombings. When beauty disappears, it seems that children also disappear. This is a film, then, about the complete disenchantment of the world, but despite this, it is a beautiful, beautiful film. It appears that Marcello uses only ordinary people in his film and not professional actors. All respect to professional actors, of course, but this adds to the impact of the film. The first film I have on my list for viewing after coming home from the festival is Marcello’s earlier La bocca del lupo.
Interest for films from Asia
Two films that also caught my interest come from Asia, one from South Korea and one from Japan. Jigeumeun Matgo geuttaeneun teullida (Right now – wrong then) by Hong Sangsoo (South-Corea 2015) got a special mention from the ecumenical jury (but also the Pardo d’oro from the festival!). Happy Hour is a Japanese five-hour film by Hamaguchi Ryusuke. Even if there are vast differences between these two films, they are comparable due to the subdued subtlety of their portraits of the main protagonists: in the former a director and a young woman and in the latter four women in their mid-thirties. Both are films about relationships, perhaps especially between women and men. Right now – wrong then is a Korean nouvelle vague which actually consists of two parts with the same narrative twice – with only small although crucial variations; Happy Hour takes its time to slowly unfold the complexity of four interrelated lives. I must confess I dreaded the screening of the last movie given its length – that is five hours without a break. My worries were mistaken, however: complexity is here not a nice word for boring. The longer this film went on, the more my attention was drawn into the plot.
Happy Hour (© Festival del film Locarno)

The four main actresses won the Silver Leopard for Best Actress. In comparison, most commercial Western films about relationships seem very unnuanced. It is no secret that there is a huge gender inequality in both South Korea and Japan, but at least to an outsider such as me, both films seem to criticize this inequality with a retained respect for these particular societies.
Finally on the Piazza: A gangster movie meets Bollywood 
On the whole, as expected, the films of the Concorso internazionale were art-movies, characterized by the seriousness of their point-of-view. Not all of the films in the festival were equally serious. One of the highlights of the other part of the festival was the Indian film noir by Anurag Kashyap, Bombay Velvet. It was shown on the Piazza Grande at 9.30 pm on Tuesday evening, right after the sun had set but with the heat still lingering. This is a film inspired by classic American film noir with James Cagney or by Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese; a gangster movie meets Bollywood. It is a love story with a sad ending, a stylish fireworks of sound and colour.
Bombay Velvet (© Festival del film Locarno)

Bombay Velvet is a film that is self-explaining why you shouldn’t see it on an iPad but will need a huge silver screen, a great sound system and the company of an 8000-person audience. This is also a reason why you must like the Festival Internazionale del film Locarno so much: to be able to combine all these art-films in the Concorso internazionale with the best of entertainment movies. The artistically intense and the visually dazzling, all in one location.