For all the shifts in the festival landscape over the last year, the 72nd Locarno Film Festival proved far less of a departure than initially expected. With former festival head Carlo Chatrian and his programming team having moved to the Berlin Film Festival and the equally experimentally-minded Paolo Moretti now at the helm of Director’s Fortnight in Cannes, the question was how these curatorial changes might affect the traditionally cutting-edge Swiss festival. Yet, the first edition under new artistic director Lili Hinstin, previously best known for heading the edgy, but far more modestly sized Entrevues Belfort festival in France, demonstrated an unusual degree of continuity, as such Locarno alumni as Eloy Enciso, Denis Côté, Anocha Suwichakornpong, Ben Rivers, José Luis Guerin and Virgil Vernier returned to the fold and a similar appetite for daring, gratifyingly challenging cinema remained in evidence.
Perhaps Hinstin’s biggest coup was to land the eagerly awaited new film by Pedro Costa, whose Horse Money won Best Director here back in 2014. Vitalina Varela not only towered over the rest of the festival, but also took home the Golden Leopard for Best Film and an acting prize for its titular star. This fifth feature in Costa’s “Fontainhas” series now puts Varela center stage following her fleeting, yet indelible appearance in Horse Money. Varela has come to Lisbon from Cape Verde after receiving word of the death of her husband, who she has not seen in 25 years. Denied the chance for a farewell and to air her many grievances, she heads to his rundown home, where his clothes still hang and the sheets remain soaked in his blood. Candles are lit and recollections of his life and final days are exchanged with those who come to offer their condolences, although most of the time Varela just sits in the house alone, the light and noise of the neighborhood outside barely able to impinge on the darkness and silence within. From time to time, words start flowing forth from her lips unbidden, directed towards him and him alone, as if he were right there in front of her, words of past hope and present rancor, words still somehow of love.
Varela’s attempts to process this deeply ambivalent loss hardly remain confined to her dead husband’s house, however. With nearly every frame hemmed in by the same shadows, each space is free to flow seamlessly into the next, which proves a perfect way for Costa to incorporate the sort of sudden mental leaps through space and time that go hand in hand with the mourning process. Scenes of Cape Verde thus bleed into scenes of Varela’s husband while still alive, the resultant disorientation only heightened by the fact that Ventura, the protagonist of Horse Money (2014) and Colossal Youth (2006) plays both the husband and the priest who conducts his funeral.
While Vitalina Varela resembles these previous films, it draws its own unique force from Varela’s formidable physicality: the way she holds herself, her gestures and facial expressions, her glittering eyes that repeatedly cut through the gloom. The carefully modulated back and forth between light and dark, stillness and movement, rich colors and blacks, words and wordlessness is what gives the film its structure and allows its affect to build, producing a wave-like motion that progressively pulls the viewer along with all the emotions swirling around Varela. If Vitalina Varela is one sustained farewell, it’s a farewell that equally extends to Fontainhas, the films Costa has made about it, the shifting bodies they contain and all those innocent dreams that colonialism could lead anywhere else than a darkened room in silence, even if the sun still shines over the mountains.
If Vitalina Varela keeps expanding outwards, Nicolás Pereda’s forty-minute My Skin, Luminous, co-directed with his regular actor Gabino Rodríguez, progressively folds in on itself, weaving a tale around material also plucked from real life that feels not so much narrated as dreamt. As Rodríguez’s voiceover explains at the outset, the duo’s production company received a commission from the Ministry of Education in Mexico to document a new government scheme to improve primary schools across the country, with Thomas More school in Michoacán being their first stop. They thus survey the daily routine of lunchtime, lessons, and playground games, which contain ample opportunity for daydreaming and subsequent yarn-spinning. The blue classroom marked with the letter M soon becomes a quarantine station for an indigenous child named Matías with a mysterious skin condition, while a visit to the school by Peruvian author Mario Bellatin and his monk-like attire ushers in a story of colonial-era miracles.
It’s impossible to predict exactly when the everyday will give way to the invented and which inventions will be visualized and which will remain as word, just as there’s no way of knowing what proportion of these tales stems from Rodríguez and Pereda, Bellatin (who has a novel of his own entitled My Skin, Luminous) or the children themselves. These shifts and fluctuations create a woozy, gently disconcerting mood, which is only amplified by the motifs that percolate through the stories: contamination, imprisonment, disfigurement, circularity. Should one choose to read the film as the documentary it introduces itself as, perhaps its subject is a suggestion of what might be passing through the children’s heads as they nap in the classroom, curtains closed, in the full heat of the afternoon, before the storm finally breaks.
While schoolchildren are just one jumping-off point for Rodríguez and Pereda, they are the body and soul of Eric Baudelaire’s Un film dramatique, which hands them not just the camera but also co-authorship of the film. This entails twenty pupils from the Dora Maar Middle School on the outskirts of Paris documenting themselves and their everyday lives, at times independently and individually and at times in more moderated discussion sessions with Baudelaire himself, who is heard, but never seen. The former takes in the school, their homes, the surrounding area, and their own desire to perform for or speak to the camera, while the latter casually zeroes in on the debates at the heart of contemporary France, whether terrorism, the rise of the Front National, racism, difference, and the intricacies of origin vs. nationality, all of which carry an additional charge given that only a few of these children’s parents were born in the country. The other main talking point is the project itself and, by extension, cinema, an ongoing meta-discussion which Baudelaire feeds further by having the kids reenact scenes from classic films or goof around with the conventions of synchronized sound.
Given the wealth of heterogeneous material likely produced over the course of the project, Un film dramatique ends up as an unusually smooth whole, perhaps due to the presence of Chantal Akerman’s former editor Claire Atherton, who is credited as another of the collaborators. Yet it’s the collaboration between Baudelaire and the children themselves that’s the most vital one of all, as the many beautifully candid moments of alternating seriousness and levity which make up the film would not exist without the obvious trust between them. The children keep asking what sort of film they’re actually making and it’s a question with no simple answer: a chronicle of modern France from the margins, a playful exercise in meta-filmmaking or a choral diary would all be equally apt descriptions. But as the years pass, the shaky camerawork grows more assured, and pupil after pupil disappears from the project, the true drama becomes time itself, which neither life nor cinema can escape.
The passing of time becomes equally tangible in Jessica Sarah Rinland’s Those That, at a Distance, Resemble Another, which, like Un film dramatique, premiered in the festival’s experimental section, newly dubbed “Moving Ahead” in honor of Jonas Mekas. The protagonists of Rinland’s experimental documentary are perhaps the least conventional of the entire festival, namely numerous pairs of hands, with the director’s own ones in the starring role, recognizable due to the bright pink nail polish she wears in every scene. As the sporadic, often oblique voiceover makes at least nominally clear, the task being carried out by this particular set of digits is the creation, deliberate destruction, and subsequent repair of a replica elephant tusk that was originally poached in Malawi. Yet the distinct stages of this one process is flanked by parts of many others, all of which relate to restoration and preservation: bones being cleaned with pieces of sponge, a piece of ivory being cut to size to close the gap on an antique jewelry box, patterns from ceramic vessels being copied in marker on plastic.
Aside, perhaps, from the pink nails, Rinland avoids the temptation to over-aestheticize these overlapping processes, presenting them instead largely unadorned and with considerable respect for their natural duration, with only the sound from one location being placed over another from time to time. With the wider surroundings also frequently left unseen, all these distinct sub-processes morph together over time into what feels like a representation of process itself, a state without start or finish, neither spectacular nor overtly sensual, a sort of radical monotony that comes across as perversely soothing. Yet this is not Rinland’s only conceptual interest, as the opening titles already speak of the overlap between real life and representation, original and copy, which also tie together all the processes shown. To say precisely how the film bids farewell to this state would be a spoiler of sorts, but perhaps the clue is in the title: resemblance and difference all depend on the point of view.