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Topper renews Locarno

World preems, even competition help fest's renewal

LOCARNO, Switzerland — The rains poured down, but the movies bloomed at the 54th Locarno Intl. Film Festival, which under new director Irene Bignardi showed every sign of renewal after several years in the doldrums.

As the fest (Aug. 2-12) entered its final few days last week, the 19-pic competition alone had screened at least seven world preems of note, with three titles still to unspool. And the out-of-competition program, held in the Swiss-Italian town’s cobbled Piazza Grande, was being hailed as the most even and focused in years.

Despite losing two titles at the last moment to Venice (a recurring and inevitable problem for Locarno), Bignardi reckoned she’d still managed to put her personal stamp on the competition, balancing the fest’s desire to seek out challenging new talent with a need for pics that are accessible on an emotional level.

Under the final few years of previous fest topper Marco Muller, the competition had calcified into a largely indigestible collection of hard-core art movies with almost no commercial future.

Clearly leading this year’s pack is Anne Fountaine’s French drama, “How I Killed My Father,” a beautifully written study of hidden tensions in a bourgeois family, with a first-rate cast led by veteran Michel Bouquet.

Four other titles also combined intelligence with accessibility, not least the ironic British relationship drama “The Lawless Heart,” by second-time helmers Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger. Pic is a rarity in current Brit cinema for its well-worked script and subtle integration of its characters’ backstory.

Post-baby blues

Similarly intertwining a large number of characters was former documaker Dominique Cabrera’s third and best feature to date, black comedy “The Milk of Human Kindness,” with a knockout cast including singer Patrick Bruel, Sergi Lopez and Dominique Blanc as residents of a French mountain town thrown for a loop by a woman’s bout of post-partum depression.

From outside Europe, Iranian helmer Abolfazl Jalili (“Dance of Dust”) contribbed a visually poetic portrait of Afghan border tensions in “Delbaran.” And from China, 31-year-old first-timer Emily Tang married realism with emotion in “Conjugation,” an on-the-nose study of a young couple during the post-Tienanmen winter of 1990.

By excluding competition titles from the Piazza Grande, Bignardi gave the open-air screenings a clearer identity, concentrating on tributes, Hollywood crowd-pleasers and visual extravaganzas.

Among world preems, Peter Bogdanovich’s period Hollywood tale “The Cat’s Meow” received a largely favorable reception; Bollywood cricket epic “Lagaan,” proved a major hit; and German feel-good comedy “Mostly Martha” also went down smoothly.

At press time, “Planet of the Apes” had yet to unspool, but drew chortles at its advance press screening.

Reflecting on the first of her planned three years as fest director, Bignardi, a veteran film critic at Italian daily La Repubblica, told Variety the job had been harder than she’d expected, not least because of Venice’s decision to hold a second competitive section this year devoted to newer talent.

Next year, Bignardi says, she may restructure the festival’s Filmmakers of the Present sidebar, a sprawling grab-bag of film and video that has a devoted following but lacks focus. And though the festival’s budget has almost doubled with new sponsorship and increased government funds, Bignardi confirmed that the town’s giant new hardtop is still several years in the future.

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