Maire eyes pop pics, cutting edge in transition

ROME — It’s the start of a protracted transitional phase for the Locarno Film Festival.

Artistic director Frederic Maire will be stepping down in 2009 after taking the helm in 2006, the same year that saw the ambitious Rome fest burst forth and destabilize the European circuit’s established pecking order.

Maire in June decided to accept an offer to head up the Swiss Film Archive, but only after a lengthy handover period that will see the longtime Locarno staffer, who has been with the Swiss-Italian fest for more than 20 years in various roles, stay onboard as topper of the fest for the 2009 edition.

This way Maire will “have the peace of mind to prepare both the 2008 festival and to deliver on the projects we already have in the pipeline for 2009,” he says.

Though it’s a sensitive issue, Maire has no problem admitting the Rome Film Fest has been a thorn in Locarno’s side, especially since one of Rome’s artistic directors, Teresa Cavina, is Locarno’s former deputy artistic topper. “That has made the affinity in terms of the types of movies we pursue even greater,” he says.

The irony is that just as Maire announced he would be stepping down, Rome was being reshaped in the aftermath of the Italo capital’s rightward political turn. The fallout from that seismic shift could be that Cavina may become a candidate to succeed Maire.

According to Maire, talk of a successor is premature, though it will unquestionably be the issue du jour at the 61st fest and beyond in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland until a new artistic topper is announced.

Meanwhile, Maire will keep steering Locarno along the course he has been setting it.

“We want to be very clearly defined,” he says. “That means on the one hand to be very cutting-edge and on the other to be more mainstream in our Piazza Grande screenings, but always giving ourselves the leeway, even in those, for as many discoveries and surprises as possible.”

Though last year’s overall selection drew criticism for being thin on discoveries, Maire proudly points to the world preems of Gallic helmer Samuel Benchetrit’s crime comedy “I Always Wanted to Be a Gangster” and “The Drummer,” by Hong Kong’s Kenneth Bi, both of which went on to Sundance after bows on the Piazza Grande, Europe’s largest open-air venue.

Accordingly, the Variety Piazza Grande Award being launched this year will seek to pick out Piazza Grande crowdpleasers that have worldwide market potential, especially in North America.

Border patrol

As for Locarno’s symbiotic rapport with neighboring Italy, it is destined to stay strong, Maire says, despite the fest’s customary difficulty getting Italo pics because of its temporal proximity to Venice and now Rome.

This has driven Locarno to seek more eclectic and low-budget cinema Italiano like Agostino Ferrente’s digitally shot docu about a multiethnic band, “The Orchestra of Piazza Vittorio,” which went on to play a slew of fests, including Tribeca, after its 2006 Piazza Grande bow, or last year’s feminism-themed docu “We Want Roses Too,” by Locarno regular Alina Marazz, which also got a Piazza Grande preem.

Maire is the first Swiss national to run Locarno since Marco Mueller took over from David Streiff in 1991, after Streiff had turned it into the smallest of the big European festivals and biggest of the small.

Mueller over the following decade built on Streiff’s success and was succeeded in 2001 by Italo critic Irene Bignardi, who kept it on an even keel but bowed out after five years.

Now, to give some luster to Locarno’s fading high-caliber cachet, it may be time for the Swiss-Italian lakeside fest to look farther than either Switzerland or Italy, and also to make sure it puts a long-term mandate at the disposal of the next topper.

TIP SHEET

When: Aug. 6-16

Where: Locarno, Switzerland

Web: pardo.ch

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