Since his appointment as artistic director of the Locarno Film festival in early November, Italian film critic Giona A. Nazzaro has been busy taking the reins of the prominent Swiss festival. Set to take place in August, the event now has a new programming team as well as industry chief — longtime Locarno collaborator Markus Duffner — firmly in place.
Nazzaro, who is the former head of the Venice Film Festival’s Critics’ Week, also found time to write a love letter to Denis Villeneuve posted on the Locarno website in reaction to Villeneuve’s recent column in Variety, in which the director blasted the HBO Max deal for the release of his upcoming “Dune” adaptation that bypasses the theatrical window.
Having made his first moves, Nazzaro spoke exclusively to Variety about his vision for Europe’s longtime pre-eminent indie cinema event, which he intends to lead into “uncharted territory.”
Let’s start with Villeneuve. What drove you to react publicly to his Variety column?
What drove me to react to that wonderful column is that Villeneuve spoke loud and clear about what a lot of people in the industry are thinking. And that is that films belong on the big screen.
Villeneuve is not complaining about the streaming services per se. He’s not complaining about the smaller screen. He is defending the cultural and social idea of what cinema stands for. He was simply reaffirming that there are lots of ways to watch films today, but the future of the art form itself is to be on the big screen. What I’m saying is: Dennis Villeneuve has been working with the big studios and with gigantic budgets, but he spoke like one of the independent filmmakers that you would imagine in the trenches. Even if people associate him with the big-budget studio movies, he still had the clarity of mind to be brave and bold and appeal to what cinema actually stands for: the communal idea of cinema. And, of course, I also want to point out that in Locarno, we have the biggest open-air screen in the world (the 8,000 seat Piazza Grande), and I would totally welcome a screening of “Dune.”
How does that discourse fit in with your vision for Locarno?
I assembled my team after a lengthy series of interviews and conversations with some of the most gifted and talented professionals in the industry. And I’m quite proud of the result. I am confident that we will be doing something interesting. With them, I am looking to explore some new ground because people know what the mission is for Locarno, but I would love to broaden it, and also explore some uncharted territory such as digging deeper into genre cinema while cultivating a closer relationship with the U.S. studios.
Doesn’t that conflict with Locarno’s indie ethos?
I have a very broad idea of the festival. To me, a festival should be able to look towards many directions at the same time because, nowadays, there are so many interesting films coming from the big studios that are just as interesting as the more independent titles. To me, it would be interesting to put these different films in conversation with each other inside the main competition in Locarno, in the Piazza — to create a different hub where different ideas of cinema could be experienced by as broad an audience as possible.
Basically taking your cue and expanding from what you were doing in Venice?
Yes. I would really like to expand on what I did previously at Venice Critics’ Week. I’d like to introduce the concept that from India you can have an animation film [like “Bombay Rose” directed by Gitanjali Rao] that deals with the issues in Pakistan, and also gender-related issues, or that from the U.K. you can have a film directed by a star like Billie Piper [“Rare Beasts”]. Or that from Denmark, you can have a muscular cop thriller such as “Shorta.” I would really love to work in expanding in that direction.
Regarding genre, your team comprises an expert designated purely for genre films, Manlio Gomarasca. Is this a first?
Yes. We haven’t had that before. The reason I did that is very simple. When people who aren’t into genre cinema go for genre cinema, they try and seek auteurs who do genre. Instead, I really needed someone that looks at, and really loves, genre films for what they are; not someone who tries to nobilitate or elevate them. What I’m saying is, there are extremely good genre films out there that don’t stand a chance in being considered as auteur films. Just to give you a very simple example: when John Carpenter started out, with the exception of Olivier Assayas and a few other French critics, nobody paid any attention to him as an auteur. So the idea of having a consultant for genre cinema is possibly to tap into the Carpenters of the future.
Let’s talk about practical aspects. Berlin just canceled its physical edition in February due to the pandemic. How are you navigating staging the festival?
First of all, I’m totally heartbroken for [Berlin artistic director and former Locarno chief] Carlo Chatrian. I know how much passion and work he has put into this program. And to have to move it and reshape it was brave and bold. I applaud the solution, the strength and clarity with which he embraced such a tough decision.
Concerning Locarno, we are months aways from our edition [Aug. 4-14, 2021]. There is a vaccine. Hopefully we will all be vaccinated by then. Hopefully we will also be able to have more than 50% of the [potential] audience physically joining the festival. What I can say is that even though we are all smart working, for us the priority is the safety of people working for the festival. We are working towards a physical festival that can be as safe as possible.