Carlo Chatrian’s rapid rise to becoming Berlin’s artistic director stems from the steely resolve of a soft-spoken film lover with smarts and a clear sense of what he considers meaningful in contemporary cinema today.

The Italian film critic and curator previously served a five-year stint as artistic director of Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival. He is considered a bold choice on the part of German culture minister Monika Gruetters, who led the search team for a new Berlinale topper after
longtime director Dieter Kosslick exited last year. Chatrian is tasked with rebooting the Berlinale’s lineup, which Kosslick critics said was too large and favored quantity over quality.

Chatrian says that in his job interview with the culture minister and the selection committee, he “told them what cinema means for me and what I think festivals are.” His vision for Berlin and also what he achieved at Locarno motivated their choice, Chatrian points out, noting that he is aware of his limitations, which he considers to be “mainly linguistic” (he has been speed-learning German) and also in not yet knowing “the taste of the German audience.”

Born in Turin, but raised in the nearby Valle d’Aosta alpine region, in the early 1990s Chatrian was a local critic who moved into the festival world by serving as a programmer for small but solid events such as the Cinéma du réel doc fest in Paris. In 2002 he started working for Locarno, Europe’s preeminent indie event, curating retrospectives, and in 2006 became part of its selection committee, while continuing to handle some of the major retrospectives.

While the choice of Chatrian for Berlin may not have been a surprise, his appointment as Locarno’s artistic director in 2013 was unexpected.
He had never headed a festival before, and lacked the connections that come with the job, but Chatrian’s intellectual and artistic abilities had impressed his predecessor Olivier Pere as well as Locarno’s president, Marco Solari.

From the get-go, “Carlo started forging a great rapport with U.S. indie cinema,” says Locarno’s former deputy artistic director Nadia Dresti, and also with somewhat under-the-radar auteurs from the rest of the world. He did so by “watching all the movies and corresponding personally with directors and providing analysis of why ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” which, she recalls, helped him gain respect.

Chatrian soon became close with Dennis Lim, who in 2013 had been appointed director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, a position he still holds now while also acting as an advisor to Berlin.

“I think Carlo was open to looking at some of the more adventurous, kind of idiosyncratic voices in the American indie sector,” says Lim. “There was a bit of an opening for Locarno to share some of those [types of] films that might be overlooked by Cannes and other European festivals.” Films such as Alex Ross Perry’s black comedy “Listen Up Philip,” starring Jason Schwartzman as a toxically narcissistic novelist, which premiered internationally at Locarno after its Sundance launch.

Golden Leopard winners under Chatrian’s tenure at Locarno have included South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo’s “Right Now, Wrong Then,” Lav Diaz’s “From What Is Before” and “The Story of My Death” by Spain’s Albert Serra, which Chatrian cites as prizes he’s “really proud of.” Chatrian in his first year brought over Brie Larson, who was starring in one of her first films, “Short Term 12,” which scored the Leopard for best female performance.

Besides quirky premieres in international competition slots, Chatrian also slotted Hollywood crowd-pleasers in its outdoor 8,000-seat Piazza Grande.
“He cut his teeth in the Piazza and understands what works for a broad
audience,” says Dresti, who thinks Chatrian will succeed at Berlin because he will now have a lot more movies to from which to choose.
But the Berlinale, with a lineup of some 400 films and roughly half a million admissions each year — making it one of the world’s largest film festivals — is a different beast. The roughly $28 million budget is massive, as is the pressure that comes with it.

“You can’t make Berlin the Locarno of the North,” says Martin Moszkowicz, chief of German powerhouse Constantin Film. “The money would dry up immediately!”

Moszkowicz notes that Chatrian and Berlinale managing director Mariette Rissenbeek, who both have a five-year mandate, are “stepping into big shoes because Dieter [Kosslick], despite all the craziness that surrounded him, was a very effective festival manager.

“Mariette is going to help Carlo find his way around the very complicated Berlin politics that are full of pitfalls,” Moszkowicz points out. He thinks that Chatrian being Italian may help him avoid criticism that dogged Kosslick about not selecting enough German movies.

“It’s good to have an Italian guy who maybe thinks differently in the midst of all these German people,” says veteran French sales agent Eric Lagesse, head of Pyramide Intl. “The mix of cultures is always important.”

Lagesse praises Chatrian for “taking the risk” of adding Berlin’s new competition section called Encounters, which Chatrian says features “aesthetically and structurally daring works from independent, innovative filmmakers.”

Beginning to put his stamp on Berlin, Chatrian has also scrapped the Kosslick-era culinary cinema and native sections that were dedicated to films about food and films from indigenous cultures, respectively.

Participant Media CEO David Linde, a Berlin veteran, sees Chatrian’s biggest challenge at Berlin as “learning German.”

On this subject Chatrian guardedly says that is his goal, but “not an obsession.” And asked whether he will deliver an opening speech in German, he refuses to be drawn out, responding that the script for Berlin’s opening night ceremony, hosted by German actor Samuel Finzi, is still being worked out, but Rissenbeek and Chatrian will not be center-stage.

Even before the 70th edition of the fest begins, there are early signs of potential stumbling blocks ahead. Chatrian has come under fire from German media for his choice of Jeremy Irons as jury president due to controversial comments made in the past by the British actor about sexual harassment and gay marriage. Comments that Irons had since revised, Chatrian has countered.

The response to the fest’s opener, Canadian director Philippe Falardeau’s anticipated “My Salinger Year,” toplining a powerful female duo, Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley, has been positive.

Getting Hollywood movies and the star power they bring will be crucial, says Moszkowicz, who is also certain that Berlin’s new leaders know that.

“You can be pretty sure that all the studios have had meetings with Carlo and Mariette,” he notes. “We will see a fair share of Hollywood movies and he will try to get stars to come to Berlin”

But that’s not be an easy task given Berlin’s position on the calendar, between Sundance and Cannes and very close to the Oscars.

“You don’t hire someone like Carlo if you want the festival to stay the same,” says Lim. Chatrian underlines that though he is trying some new things, “there will also be elements of continuity” with “films that would also have screened in the previous editions.

“It’s hard to define yourself,” he says, because “a festival is a sum of different factors or elements.” More importantly, Chatrian’s mission as Berlin’s artistic director isn’t “to create an autobiography.

“My goal is to give voice and space to movies that deserve it.”