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The Locarno Film Festival, long known as a safe haven for indie cinema, is taking a turn into genre territory while remaining true to
its origins.

“People know what the mission is for Locarno,” says the fest’s new artistic director Giona A. Nazzaro, referring to the prestige of the event — the 74th edition runs Aug. 4-14 — that is known worldwide as a festival of discovery.

But Nazzaro, an Italian film critic and former chief of the Venice Critics’ Week, now intends “to broaden the moral imagination of this mission,” as he puts it, by digging deeper into genre cinema, and “also into the [festival’s] relationship with the U.S. studios and what people would consider as [pure] entertainment.”

Significantly, this year’s Locarno opener is Netflix Original “Beckett,” a thriller toplining John David Washington as an American tourist who becomes the target of a political assassination while vacationing in Greece, and Oscar winner Alicia Vikander as his girlfriend. This high-octane pic is from Italian helmer Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, whose previous film “Antonia,” an arty biopic of a tormented poet, launched at the fest in 2015.

“Beckett,” which is produced by Luca Guadagnino, is getting an out-of-competition launch on the Swiss lakeside town’s 8,000-seat Piazza Grande, which is Europe’s largest outdoor venue. This year Swiss health authorities approved a 5,000-spectator capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Nazzaro’s Piazza Grande selection also includes the world premiere of U.S. indie thriller “Ida Red,” which stars Frank Grillo, Melissa Leo, Josh Hartnett and William Forsythe. It is directed by John Swab (“Body Brokers”), who shot the pic in Oklahoma during the pandemic.

Also playing on Piazza Grande is Jordanian helmer Bassel Ghandour’s crime drama with elements of dark humor “The Alleys,” set in a claustrophobic East Amman neighborhood in Jordan where violence, and gossip, run rampant; and Swiss period piece “Monte Verità,” directed by Stefan Jäger. It portrays women’s emancipation in a turn-of-the-century artists’ community.

For the Locarno competition, the new topper has secured the world premiere of Abel Ferrara’s Ethan Hawke-starrer “Zeros and Ones,” a political thriller set amid the lockdown in Italy. It is a scenario in which the Vatican has been blown up and an American soldier stationed in Rome named J.J. (Hawke) embarks on a mission to find an unknown enemy who is threatening the globe.

The apocalyptic Ferrara pic will vie for a Golden Leopard with debuting Icelandic director Hannes Þór Halldórsson’s comedy “Cop Secret,” about a tough cop in denial of his sexuality, who falls in love with his new partner while investigating some bank breakins. Wacky coming-of-age comedy “Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash” by the Indonesian indie darling known as Edwin, and fantasy film “Paradis Sale,” set on a planet in which only women can survive, directed by France’s Bertrand Mandico (“The Wild Boys”), are among titles that reflect Nazzaro’s genre-friendly vision.

Other, more classic, indie Locarno competition entries comprise Russian director Aleksandr Zeldovich’s “Medea,” which transposes the Greek tragedy to today’s Moscow, and Austrian director Peter Brunner’s Alps-set drama “Luzifer,” inspired by the true tale of an exorcism and produced by Austrian director Ulrich Seidl.

On the market side, new Locarno Pro chief Markus Duffner says he is increasingly focusing on the streaming world, “because the production ecosystem is changing” and “going forward streamers will start co-producing, especially the smaller ones.”

Prior to taking the reins, last year Duffner launched Locarno Pro’s Heritage Online, a first of its kind platform that serves as a database and business facilitator with streaming platforms of films that premiered prior to 2005.

He is building on the growing and impressive structure set up over the years by his predecessor Nadia Dresti, who remains on board as a consultant. At its core, the Locarno market, which this year will be mostly in-person preceded by a couple of days of online meetings to warm up, remains a meticulously curated space for informal exchanges “where you can meet new people and discover new films and talents,” he says.