La Sapienza | Socialism | White nights on the Pier
Locarno International Film Festival is one of the oldest cinema venues in the world. Like Cannes, this year was its 67th. Locarno is a small city in the south of Switzerland, on Lake Lago Maggiore in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino. Perhaps, geography defined the festival’s atmosphere which is closest to a big party where boldest modern films are shown alongside huge classical retrospectives, stressing the continuity of cinema history. The latest winners — Jean-Claude Brisseau, Albert Serra, Joaquim Pinto, Hong Sang Soo — give an idea of what kind of cinema is supported by the festival. Nevertheless, there’s a place not only for radical artistic statements, but for the general audience as well: screenings in Europe’s biggest outdoor cinema on the central Piazza Grande square attract up to eight thousand viewers.
Locarno is a special festival in terms of its attention to Russian cinema. In 1953, the winner was Grigori Aleksandrov (Glinka), and in 1969, Gleb Panfilov (There is no Passage Through Fire) shared the prize with Raúl Ruiz and Alain Tanner. The main competition saw Aleksey German’s My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1987, Ernest Artaria Award), Alexandr Sokurov’s The Lonely Voice of Man (1988, Bronze Leopard), Svetlana Proskurina’s Accidental Waltz (1990, Golden Leopard), and Nikolai Dostal’s Cloud Heaven (1991, Silver Leopard). Also, in 1994, a honorary Leopard was presented to Kira Muratova, and in 2006, to Alexandr Sokurov — this year, he brought to Locarno short films made by students at his workshop in the Kabardino-Balkarian state University.
It is impossible to bring to St. Petersburg neither Piazza Grande nor the wonderful Ex-Rex cinema, where 54 classic pictures by the Italian studio Titanus were shown this year. But, as Finnish filmmaker Peter von Bagh said, «Film screenings, like films themselves, are part of history — the seismograph of the era». Indeed, every screening is unique and unlike any other. That is why I’m looking forward to the meeting of St. Petersburg and White Nights on the Pier: French classic Paul Vecchiali will come in person to present his version of Dostoyevsky’s famous novel that became a seminal text for cinema (remember Bresson’s and Visconti’s versions).
We’ve selected very diverse films (including this year’s winner, From What Is Before by Lav Diaz) that reflect the richness of aesthetic priorities of the current festival headed by its new artistic director Carlo Chatrian. These five films are very unlike each other, both in style and narration. Perhaps the only quality that unites them — and for Locarno, it’s a crucial one — is the absence of cynicism and belief in the limitless possibilities of cinema.
Borus Nelepo, film critic, Seance magazine contributor, the Russian film consultant for the Locarno Film Festival
Philippines, 1972. In a remote barrio, mysterious things are happening. On a road, a dying man was found with a bite on his neck. Cows were hacked to death. Houses were burned. A peasant saw a nightmare about his grandson. President Ferdinand Marcos committed a coup d’etat and declared Martial Law. Darkness is advancing.
From What Is Before is the 13th film made by Lav Diaz, one of the most interesting modern directors. In 2013, he presided over the international jury at Locarno — and in 2014, he himself got the Golden Leopard. His work has enjoyed success worldwide. The Cannes Festival included his North, the End of History in its Un Certain Regard program, and in Venice, Diaz has been a regular participant: twice he has been awarded in Orizzonti (a special mention for Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007, and the Grand Prize for Melancholia, 2008). As we speak, in New York, Time Regained: The Films of Lav Diaz, the most complete American retrospective of Diaz’s filmography to date, is taking place. His pictures are often compared with grand novels. He is indeed a wonderful storyteller who creates an intense, polyphonic narrative. Deeply in love with Russian literature, and most of all, Dostoyevsky, Lav Diaz creates films with digressions, inserts and folklore. There are many characters in From What Is Before, and Lav Diaz insists that all their stories and memories are real. Let’s hear from the director himself — for he can describe his creed better than anyone else. «I would go to any extent in my art to fathom the mystery of humankind’s existence. I want to understand death. I want to understand solitude. I want to understand struggle. I want to understand the philosophy of a growing flower in the middle of a swamp». In the very end of From What Is Before, one of the main characters says, «I still don’t get what life is about. Life is still a great mystery». Perhaps, a feature of Diaz’s cinema is not the epic portrayal of tragedy, but his ability to find the mysterious in the world, to peer into its beauty.
While the young captains lead the revolution in the streets, the people of Fontainhas search for Ventura, lost in the woods.
Pedro Costa is the most notable and consistent of modern Portuguese directors. All his films are one uninterrupted work he’s been toiling away at for years. With Ossos (1997), he started the Vanda trilogy, about people from Cabo Verde who play themselves. Together, they’ve tried a variety of genres: realistic drama (Ossos), contemplative documentary (No Quarto da Vanda, 2006), a Vermeer-style surreal canvas (Juventude Em Marcha, 2006). The last of the three was shown in Cannes competition. Costa’s aesthetics is defined by the digital revolution: he filmed Juventude Em Marcha practically alone for 15 months, and edited the film from the 320 hours he had recorded.
Horse Money (dinheiro means «money» in Portuguese, it’s the name of Ventura’s horse) is a step in a new direction. What you get is a real ghost movie about the spirits that appear before Ventura who can’t tell between fiction and reality, the past from the future, and the dead from the living. He is certain he lives in 1975, the first year after the Portuguese Carnation Revolution. As French philosopher Jacques Rancière wrote, «Ventura does not propose any form of communism, past, present or to come. He remains the stranger until the end, the one who comes from far away to attest to the possibility for each and every one of having a destiny, and being equal in his or her destiny. In Costa’s work there is no epic unity: the political concern can not, in order to sing the communist glory, be dissociated from the laborious birth of any life. The faith in art attesting to the grandeur of the poor — the grandeur of whoever — shines here brighter than ever. But it no longer corresponds with the affirmation of a salute. Perhaps this turn is what has become of irreconciliation, of which Pedro Costa is today’s first poet».
Alexandre Schmidt, a famous Swiss architect and a Francesco Borromini expert, is going through a crisis. Are his long-upheld professional principles correct? He visits the cathedrals of Turin and Rome, and shows them to his young friend who’s only starting to study architecture. His wife is in Stresa, together with the young man’s sister. All of them are trying to make peace with the past and find harmony in the present.
Eugène Green is a radical follower of Robert Bresson, and already in his first film, Toutes les nuits (2001), he created his unmistakable aesthetics. Other exquisite pictures followed: Le Monde vivant (2003), Le pont des Arts (2004), and the Lisbon-filmed The Portuguese Nun (2009). La Sapienza is Eugène Green’s ‘Italian’ film. He has always been very receptive to the beauty and possibilities of European languages, because in his cinema, the word is as important as the image. Eugène Green was born in the US, and moved to France in the 70s. In 1977, he founded the Théâtre de la Sapience for experimental baroque performances. All Green’s work is a research on the baroque art, and in La Sapienza, he turns to architecture. For him, architecture, just like cinema and painting, first of all has to do with light — and light is a frequent topic of conversations in this enlightened and enlightening picture. In La Sapienza, there’s a place for incredibly beautiful churches, high-brow discussions (e.g. about Borromini’s and Bernini’s work), Claudio Monteverdi’s music, easy-mannered irony, and even sarcastic scoffs directed at official cultural institutions. The only thing completely alien to Eugène Green is cynicism — and that sets him apart from many modern directors. It is not by accident that the film’s epigraph is a quote from François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel: «Sapience enters not into a malicious mind, and science without conscience destroys the soul».
This incredible Odyssey in the history of cinema (from the Lumiere brothers to Pyryev, from Chaplin to Eisenstein) is opened and defined by a quote from Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya: «Those living a hundred, two hundred years from now, despising us for our silly, mundane lives, may perhaps somehow learn the secret of happiness».
Last year, Finland saw a book on Peter von Bagh, Citizen Peter, where he’s named a Renaissance man. This is clearly not an overstatement. Von Bagh wrote some 40 books on cinema, is the editor-in-chief of the cinephile magazine Filmihullu, as well as the permanent director of the Midnight Sun Film Festival started by the Kaurismäki brothers — and the artistic director of the Bologna festival Il Cinema Ritrovato. And, last but not the least, he’s a fantastic documentarian: he invented a unique collage approach to archive materials. Peter von Bagh is a man who, in his films on cinema, literature, politics, history, music, and painting, invented and created Finland. But his central topic is the unlimited capability of cinema to try and make sense of the 20th century, to work with the time fabric itself. For him, filmmaking is a way to quench his thirst for images of the past, because the 20th century was recorded visually. This image corpus — everything filmed by man — is a bottomless archive that lets us travel in time. Socialism is the filmmaker’s opus magnum; he worked at this intricate mosaic for many years. Rephrasing Dziga Vertov, it’s a song about socialism in 18 chapters that consist of fragments of 47 pictures — images of the Utopian dream that turned into one of the century’s nightmares. German film critic Olaf Möller wrote, «Von Bagh, maybe the truest of all Benjamin’ians in modern cinema, shows how socialism and cinema — all of cinema, be it documentary be it fiction — are one, and how life is all about this sense of never being alone but always one».
A young man goes out for a walk every night along the jetty. There he meets a young woman who is waiting for the man of her life. Over four nights, as real as they are fantasized, they discuss life and he gradually falls in love with her. But then the man she’s been yearning for arrives.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s White Nights is a seminal text for cinema; various directors from all over the world keep returning to it. One could name Robert Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer, Luchino Visconti’s White Nights, James Gray’s Two Lovers. What can be more cinematic than floating between memories, reality, and hope for the future; fantasies, dreams, and reveries? White Nights was Visconti’s first pavillon shooting: he accented the dreaminess of the text with lots of mirrors and reflections, and turned the film set itself into a theatrical stage of sorts. Paul Vecchiali is a French classic, the author of singular films in the 70s and 80s (Femmes femmes, At the Top of the Stairs, The Strangler), and a founder of the unique Diagonale studio. He’s had plans for Dostoyevsky’s novel for some time. For the past 10 years, he’s been filming a digital cycle of no-budget movies called «anti-dogma». The first film of the series, A Vot’ Bon Coer, was presented in 2004 at The Directors’ Fortnight, and Jean-Luc Godard himself sent his crew to watch. Godard is not the only famous fan of Vecchiali’s. In 1974, Pier Paolo Pasolini said: «Since watching Femmes femmes I’ve known I’m not a director». 2014 is the year of Paul Vecchiali. His False Agreements appeared in the program of the Marseille festival of documentary film, and Locarno saw the premiere of his «anti-dogma» number 10: White nights on the Pier. Femmes femmes opened with an epigraph from Albert Camus: «Believe you me: in order to live in fact, put on an act». These words best of all describe this poetic and incredibly inventive film, where hands meet timidly, and people learn to dream. Dostoyevsky wrote that «dreamers are strange people». Vecchiali’s heroine puts it even simpler: «People, all people, are so strange». And probably that’s why they are dreamers.