This year’s Locarno Film Festival offered up a lot of films. Visitors to the festivals could see everything from recent American releases such as Magic Mike and Ruby Sparks to retrospective dedicated to directors like Otto Preminger and Leos Carax. Its main competition offered up films like Compliance, which had already been shown in other big festivals, and smaller films getting their world premiere at the festival itself. One of the biggest joys of going to a film festival is seeing a film without knowing anything about it, and Locarno offered many such chances. Here are our five favorite discoveries from the Locarno Film Festival:
Starlet, directed by Sean Baker
The only film that received anything close to unanimous approval from the critics I talked to was Starlet (pictured above), from director Sean Baker. Its premise sounds like it could come from a Hallmark Channel movie: an aimless young woman with a cute dog befriends a crotchety old woman. But there’s more to the film than the seemingly sickly sweet premise. Jane, the young woman in question buys a thermos from Sadie, the old lady, within which she discovers a stash of money. After making an unsuccessful and unenthusiastic attempt to return the money, she tries to befriend the much older woman. But there are elements to both Jane and Sadie’s lives that are kept from the audience for a significant amount of time. These elements risk turning the film into exploitation, and perhaps turning the audience against the film, but the empathy which the film has with the characters makes it impossible to see those developments as anything other than character moments.
The film has been picked up for U.S. distribution, but a single explicit scene means that it will have to be released unrated, limiting the number of theaters willing to screen the film considerably. But Starlet is something worth seeking out, a film surprising in its lack of judgment of its characters and the level of grace by which it tells its story.
Museum Hours, directed by Jem Cohen
Like Starlet, Jem Cohen’s film Museum Hours tells the story of two people connecting. Anne, a woman in her 50s travels from Canada to Vienna to visit a comatose relative. As she doesn’t have much money she wanders around the city, ending up in the Kunsthistorische museum, where she meets Johann, a man of similar age working there. They decide to meet again and quickly they bond as they explore the museum and the city itself.
The camera photographs the art in the museum, the streets of Vienna and even trash on the street with equal care and beauty. The editing is deliberate and adds to the stillness of the film, but its ultimate triumph is the two central performances. Bobby Sommer who plays Johann had never done any professional acting, which is never apparent. He gives you a deep insight in to the character’s content but slightly melancholic existence, never straining too hard or overdoing it. Mary Margret O’Hara (Catherine O’Hara’s sister) has a similar presence on-screen, hinting at the character’s life and regrets. There are moments in the film where the focus drifts from the central couple, such as an interlude where a guide discusses the museums Bruegler paintings with a group of visitors (Museum Hours would make a good double feature with last year’s festival favorite The Mill and the Cross, which was based on a Bruegler painting) and a fantasy sequence where museum guests are shown literally naked in front of the art. These scenes do add more grandeur to the film, but its central relationship is so warm and well-drawn that you just want to spend more time with them. Somehow Museum Hours manages to make a film as beautiful as the art in the museum and the relationship which forms within it.
Der Glanz des Tages (The Shine of the Day), directed by Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel
The Austrian film Der Glanz des Tages (The Shine of the Day) also tells a story of two people bonding. But unlike Starlet and Museum Hours, the characters in Der Glanz des Tages should actually know each other well, since they’re uncle and nephew. Some events in the uncle’s life have estranged him from his family. Instead he’s lived as a drifter and circus performer, raising and fighting bears. One day the uncle, Walter, shows up at his nephew Philip’s doorstep, looking to meet someone in his family. Philip is a busy working actor, who doesn’t really have time for his uncle, but is somehow drawn to this unfamiliar family member.
The film is happy with just following these characters around, several different plot threads are introduced but the film doesn’t really follow through with any of them. It actually ends up working in the film’s favor, since any actual plot would end up feeling forced or too calculated. Walter Saabel won the festival’s best actor prize, and it’s well deserved. He carries the film with his enigmatic role, you never really know if he’s telling the truth about his past, but you can’t help but to be drawn into his and the films world.
Leviathan, directed by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
The documentary Leviathan from directors Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor is a truly awe-inspiring experience. Through images captured on small, inexpensive digital cameras you get the experience of working on a small fishing boat in the middle of the ocean. Some of the film’s shots, especially a long take where the camera has been stuck to a pole which bobs up and down from the water, exposing what lies under the sea and the flock of seagulls flying above the surface, leaves you breathless. It's one of the films that had the warmest reception amongst critics and many were surprised that it got no mention from the jury.
As a whole I felt that the film was somewhat lacking, both in an emotional or intellectual connection, but as a singular cinematic experience Leviathan is unparalleled. If it ends up playing near you, definitely seek it out, since it’s unlikely a film of Leviathan’s visual and aural power will have much impact on the small screen.
Padroni di Casa, directed by Edoardo Gabbriellini
It surprised me that the Italian film Padroni di Casa didn’t get much love from critics at the festival. It tells the story of two brothers who are hired to renovate the house of a retired pop star, who lives in a small Italian town. The brother’s manage to immediately rub the town’s inhabitants the wrong way and slowly the lighthearted comedy turns into something dark and disturbing. The film’s acting, cinematography and directing is superb. Although one could argue with the logic of some of the elements in the films ending, its visuals are glorious and its theme so well expressed that it’s easy to ignore the small things that don’t totally work out. Padroni di Casa is incredibly funny and charming but also has scenes that are deeply troubling and haunting.
Ari Gunnar Þorsteinsson is a member of Indiewire's Critics Academy program, which awarded eight young, aspiring film critics the chance to cover the 2012 Locarno Film Festival over a two-week period for a variety of websites, including this piece for Movies.com. Check out more on Indiewire's Critics Academy program, which will begin again for the New York Film Festival this fall.