Checking in on Locarno

The Daily — Aug 14, 2019
Maura Delpero’s Maternal (2019)

Back in 1988, French director Catherine Breillat attended her first film festival when she brought 36 fillette to Locarno—where it was “horribly received,” as she recalls in a conversation with Ben Croll in Variety. Nearly thirty years later, when the film screened again in Locarno as part of a 2017 retrospective, “the public really enjoyed it, and that made me very happy.” Breillat, “no stranger to controversy,” as Croll puts it, talks about her opposition to quotas aimed at achieving gender parity in the industry, her run-in with Asia Argento, and her own beginnings as a filmmaker. “Ingmar Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel made me decide to become a director,” Breillat tells Croll. “I was twelve years old, living in the countryside, and all of a sudden I recognized my entire existence in the figure of Harriet Andersson. The film depicted this rapport between desire, shame and masochism that dawned my directorial interests.”

There’s no predicting which film Breillat, who’s presiding over the jury in Locarno this year, and her fellow jury members—producer Ilse Hughan, critic Emiliano Morreale, and actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart—will honor with the Golden Leopard when Locarno’s seventy-second edition wraps on Saturday, but a few critical favorites have emerged since the festival opened a week ago.

In My Room, which premiered in the Un Certain Regard program at Cannes last year, was Ulrich Köhler’s first feature in seven years, but he’s already back with A Voluntary Year. The film centers on a teenager torn between her father’s hopes to see her escape their provincial home and the love she feels for a young man in town. “Co-written and co-directed by Henner Winckler and shot in a small town in rural Germany, A Voluntary Year has the slender production scale and low stakes of a feature for television or a film quickly made between larger things,” writes Notebook editor Daniel Kasman, “yet its modest definition allows the filmmakers to attack their story with a tenacious precision, giving what is essentially a father-daughter two-hander the efficient energy and detailed insight of a genre film.”

At the Film Stage, Rory O’Connor suggests that the gist of A Voluntary Year is “the idea that people are, by nature, liable to break the further they bend to society’s expectations and the sanest option might be to jump ship and chill. This has been the great theme of Köhler’s work as it has been of many of his contemporaries: we saw it in [Valeska] Grisebach’s Western in 2017 and [Angela] Schanelec’s I Was at Home, But . . . earlier this year, and of course, most ecstatically in his partner Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, in which Sandra Hüller’s corporate climber gradually gave in to her father’s propensity for YOLO.” At Cineuropa, Kaleem Aftab is a shade less enthusiastic, while Screen’s Allan Hunter sees in the film “a wryly observed deconstruction of toxic masculinity.”

In Koji Fukada’s A Girl Missing, a nurse close to the family she works for becomes embroiled in a media frenzy when her nephew kidnaps the young daughter. “A deft and absorbing multi-pronged tale about a kind, hard-working woman whose life becomes a morass of collateral damage, A Girl Missing is satisfying slow-burn drama expertly told,” writes Screen’s Lisa Nesselson. The film also receives high marks from Nicholas Bell (Ioncinema), Giorgia Del Don (Cineuropa), and Andreea Pătru (Vague Visages), but in Variety, Jay Weissberg finds it “disappointing and unmoving . . . Thankfully, actress Mariko Tsutsui, who played the wife in [Fukada’s] Harmonium, exudes an intriguing off-kilter combination of sympathy and mystery.” A Girl Missing now heads to festivals in Toronto and New York.

Maternal, the fiction feature debut of Italian documentary filmmaker Maura Delpero, is set in a Catholic refuge for single mothers in Buenos Aires. “Mixing starkly composed formalism with more organic, observational material of a piece with her non-fiction background,” writes Guy Lodge in Variety, “Delpero’s film most surprisingly risks a full lunge into melodrama with its story of a young foreign novitiate forming a contentiously deep attachment to one of the children in her care.” For Keith Uhlich in the Hollywood Reporter, “there’s a curiously clinical air” about the film, though the “understated approach makes even mundane actions (moving a child’s bed from one room to another, say) feel epochal, if not apocalyptic.” The film scores an A- from Warren Cantrell (Playlist) and a B- from Rory O’Connor (Film Stage).

Brazilian director Maya Da-Rin is another documentary filmmaker presenting her fiction feature debut in Locarno. In The Fever, a middle-aged security guard in Manaus, a city of two million inhabitants in the state of Amazonas, begins to succumb to the heat, drifting off into a dream-like state. The film “precisely and evocatively depicts the condition of an indigenous community in Amazonia forced to emigrate to big urban centers,” finds Vittoria Scarpa, who talks with Da-Rin at Cineuropa. “We are all aware of how cinema has the propensity to exoticize indigenous peoples and tends to see them through a romantic and positivistic prism, as remnants of that which western cultures were in the past and not as contemporary complex societies,” Da-Rin tells Gustavo Beck at the Notebook. “But the project’s initial script was much different from what it turned out to be. It took six years of work and innumerous trips to Manaus before we were able to begin shooting.” The Fever will see its North American premiere in Toronto next month.

In fifty-six independent scenes, all set over the Christmas holidays, Rúnar Rúnarsson creates a portrait of his fellow Icelanders and the current state of their country in Echo. “An eighty-minute neo-vérité hybrid between documentary and fiction, Echo has the poignancy of a love letter, the immediacy of a first-hand chronicle, and the energy of beating organ,” writes Leonardo Goi at the Film Stage. “It feels alive in a way few other films can claim to be–a feat that’s all the more impressive considering Sophia Olsson’s cinematography crafts each scene as a static tripod shot.” Jay Weissberg notes that it may take audiences a little time “to adjust to all these vignettes and realize that their accumulation is what builds the sense of time and place.” But with Echo, Rúnarsson has “brought together a panoply of types and situations that create a grander picture, broad yet like a collective chamber piece of a nation striking notes of melancholy and loneliness together with more hopeful chords of commonality and compassion, where small kindnesses act as grace notes to the opus.” Other admirers include Allan Hunter (Screen) and Kevin Jagernauth (Playlist); and Marta Bałaga interviews Rúnarsson for Cineuropa.

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