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theartsdesk in Locarno: I'm Watchin' in the Rain | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Locarno: I'm Watchin' in the Rain

theartsdesk in Locarno: I'm Watchin' in the Rain

Gay porn, Chinese stasis, Serbian drama, Brit Monsters in teeming filmfest

Locarno's Piazza Grande: the most famous feature of this most elegant and friendly of film festivals

It had to happen. Until now, I've always resisted. But last Thursday, I had, finally, to tear open the plastic container to get to the protection inside. A nice man from Screen International gave me his before leaving - he'd have no use for it. He added that he wouldn't have handed it over had it been stamped with the festival rubric; you know, something that would make it a keepsake.

Nice man, you've been had. As I unfurled the crinkly, wafer-thin, yellow kagoule, there it was, in black, on the back: "Festival del film Locarno with compliments of Pardo Boutique" ("Pardo" being short for "Leopardo", leopard, the festival's symbol - think Venice's lion or Berlin's bear).

It's a horrible item, really, but the rain visited upon this year's 63rd Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland has been no joke. On my first night, I spent two and a half hours twiddling my thumbs under a metal café awning to avoid being swept away after a screening, though my room was, without the cascade, three minutes' walk away. (No point in umbrellas: umbrellas are for forgetting in cafés and cinemas; or they collapse under the deluge.) Bed at 2am instead of midnight. There was barely a break in the rain, from drizzle to downpours, for the next 24 hours, hence the yellow kagoule, available to anyone who cares to buy one and who intends to sit through screenings, over 11 nights, in the Piazza Grande.

Ah, the Piazza Grande. That's the point, and it's why I'm banging on about rain. The Piazza Grande is the most famous feature of this most elegant and friendly of film festivals, which is, above all, open air. The Piazza seats 8,000. There are also, throughout the week and a half, parties and receptions on ramparts and in cloisters across Locarno's sweetly medieval-baroque quarter above.

But a position at the head of Lake Maggiore, nestling under formidable hills before the latter become serious Alps, also means that the town - very hot in the summer - can unlock unremitting tons of violent August precipitation at just the moment when film lovers hope to take to the air and stretch out, under a Ticino sky, for balmy hours before a unique 364 sq m screen.

The whole rain/open air thing is - putting it drily? - an anomaly. Normally, as the thunder cracks, I (like many) take refuge in arcades nearby; the films roll on. There are always a few doughty spectators left, resembling yellow buoys in a storm-tossed harbour at night. The rest board a shuttle or walk to a huge sports hall where, during the day, competition films are screened (rescreened in days following at other smaller venues).

OLIVIER_PEREPiazza Grande films create the glamour. Stars line up on stage before the night's big premières. Special awards are dished out - including, this year, to veteran Italian director Francesco Rosi - and hymns of praise are sung by the festival's artistic director. Olivier Père (pictured right), previously head of Cannes' Directors' Fortnight, is new here, ambitious, rather austere (in comparison to his forcefully affable, rolypoly predecessor Frédéric Maire) and French.

Here's another anomaly: for reasons best known to itself, Locarno's official festival language has, for decades, been French. Père speaks fine Italian, so has decided, unlike Maire who always spoke from stage in French (he's Swiss), that Italian will lead from now on - "because", he told me, "I like the language and want there to be no lack of respect on my part for the locals".

Fair enough. That's one change. Others include fewer films; a catalogue rationalised into two (one in English and French, the other in Italian and German), half the size of the previous slab; a daily news mag - but in general a great deal less paperwork. Press releases, for instance, are now done by e-mail only. Père hopes to give free and independent film-making full rein, will be unapologetically art-house-orientated in his choices - nothing essentially new about that for Locarno - but is also determined not to alienate the Piazza audience.

"There's a central constituency at Locarno", he says, "which comes only to the Piazza, and this, even when it rains heavily, is hugely important for the festival's revenue." So does he have any opinion about this year's rain? He smiles. "We're fine. Even if it rains on the last night" - I write this as the closing ceremony approaches, with the fog and clouds low, the drizzle thick - "we'll still be absolutely fine."

What, then, of films? Here's one last testy observation, which can go for any festival-attending experience - but Locarno's celebratedly informal. You head for an 11am screening of a film someone's told you is "pretty interesting" (from China). The small cinema's quite full, which at this time of day is a good sign - you also get your seat where you like to be (in my case, three-quarters of the way back). Next to you is a German woman with long hair and purposeful specs, speaking in over-enthusiastic tones to her male friend. Her left elbow is occupying slightly more of your seat space than you're happy with, but you keep mum. Her voice is loud even as the lights dim. Then, she takes her shoes off and becomes cross-legged on her seat. You can smell her socks. She's still gabbling. This is not a mood-lightener.

The Chinese film starts with three teenage boys meeting in a desolate square in mid-winter somewhere in one the biggest countries in the world, which could be anywhere in the galaxy. There's a repetitive mantra coming from a speaker (one presumes) nearby, which is of course incomprehensible. The three boys can't decide whether it's a good idea or not to go to the cabbage market and ogle a female vendor whom one thinks is good-looking but another thinks is ordinary. German woman still whispering. From time to time.


This film will be, in the widest sense, action-free. Your mood is tilting towards regret at having got out of bed at all, whether to face another day of rain or cinematic misery. But the German whispering stops and the film, though agonisingly slow, becomes really quite funny, in a remote, melancholic sort of way, evocative of an icy isolation one associates with the former GDR - saved, indeed, from being cripplingly dull by some very sharp dialogue and scenes of human stasis redolent of Beckett (pictured above).

It wins. Han Jia ("Winter Vacation") is directed by Li Hongqi - winner of a lesser Locarno prize in 2005 - and it can't possibly have been a favourite for the Golden Leopard. But there it is. Juries move in mysterious ways and the best festivals should, and often do, throw up the most unexpected competition winners.

Francois Sagat plays a creature who wanders around LA looking for the open wounds of dead men into which to insert his spiked penis. There's not much more I can add, I'm afraid

Ideally, there should be a few scandals too. Père's inclusion in the competition of Bruce LaBruce's hour-long LA Zombie, withdrawn from Melbourne because it was thought the flick would never get a certificate in Australia, has provoked some extra critical thunder, though it is vastly silly.

L.A.ZOMBIEFrench gay porn star François Sagat plays a creature who wanders around LA looking for the open wounds of dead men into which to insert his spiked penis; when the member ejaculates black pus, the corpses revive. There's not much more I can add, I'm afraid, as after the second such insemination I gave up, knowing I had better things to do. For a sick laugh and a half, you might want to try it (watching it, I mean), though quite why Père needed to include Homme au bain ("Man in the Bath") with Sagat as well - a similarly short gay outing, about not much more than men shagging each other - is anyone's guess. (In my one conversation with Père, he did stress that his programming is likely to include some "eccentric" offerings.)

Jasna_DuricicThere was a risk that Sagat would become the talk of the town, but thankfully a really serious competition film from Serbia provided a Best Actress Leopard for Jasna Duricic (pictured right) in Beli beli svet ("White White World"). Oleg Novković's baleful drama about a mining-community family's woes recalls Oedipus Rex - the lead male (Uliks Fehmiu) is called King - with its compelling tale of, in this case, unwitting father-daughter incest and King's eventual blindness.

Duricic is fierce and concentrated as the mother who's just out of jail for murdering her husband (in the back story, presumably a crime passionel), while Hana Selimović is simply stunning as the daughter Rosa. If there's anything eccentric about this film, it's that each of the characters break, once, into song, rather cracking its otherwise painful realism.

DAS_LETZTE_SCHWEIGENOther highlights included Brit Gareth Edwards' Monsters (a lot of monsters around this year) in the Piazza, really an allegory about Mexicans breaking across the US border; and, in my only fully dry night in the square, Baran bo Odar's Das letzte Schweigen ("The Silence" - picture left), a topical, taut thriller, with some dizzying shots of summer cornfields, about a child rape-murder and two paedophiles.

Well, not perhaps an entirely happy note to end on, but Locarno is nothing if not challenging. The mix of fabulous location and tough new screen drama from just about everywhere, along with a teeming, eager public, makes this festival unique in the royal top five or six. Just bring an extra suitcase with Highland hiking gear.

The rain visited upon this year's 63rd Locarno Film Festival has been no joke. Hence the yellow kagoule

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