The Locarno Film Festival Returns to Pre-Pandemic Glory for Its Diamond Anniversary

On Aug. 23, 1946, just a few months after the inaugural Cannes Film Festival, the very first Locarno International Film Festival opened with a screening of Giacomo Gentilomo’s Italian neorealist classic O sole mio.

From the start, the festival aimed to represent the full spectrum of cinema, showcasing what current festival managing director Raphaël Brunschwig calls “a culture with a thousand facets.”

The 75th Locarno Festival, which runs Aug. 3-13, is sticking to those first principles. Perhaps more than any other major A-list fest, Locarno continues to straddle the gap between mainstream Hollywood and experimental avant-garde movie making.

Locarno 2022 will kick off with the world premiere of Brad Pitt action-thriller Bullet Train directed by the Deadpool 2 helmer David Leitch, who returns to Locarno after the 2017 screening of Atomic Blonde. This year’s event also includes gala screenings of Medusa Deluxe, a British murder mystery set in the world of competitive hairdressing from U.K. director Thomas Hardiman; Anna Gutto’s road movie-thriller Paradise Highway, starring Juliette Binoche and Morgan Freeman; and Olivia Newman’s highly anticipated Where the Crawdads Sing, a mystery thriller featuring Daisy Edgar-Jones and David Strathairn.

Each will get the old Europe treatment in Locarno, with an outdoor screening at the famed Piazza Grande, a stunning open-air venue in the old town center, which is just about the classiest way to see a movie anywhere in the world.

Brad Pitt in BULLET TRAIN, 2022.

Scott Garfield /Sony Pictures Entertainment /Courtesy Everett Collection

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Paradise Highway

Courtesy of Lionsgate

Art house fans will also get their fill. Most of Locarno’s discoveries and surprises this year will likely be found in the festival’s main competition section, which will feature 17 world premieres, including the latest films by established masters such as Aleksander Sokurov (Russian-Belgian drama Fairytale), Patricia Mazuy (French police drama Bowling Saturn), Iraqi-French filmmaker Abbas Fahdel (the documentary Tales of the Purple House), Austria’s Nikolaus Geyrhalter (environmental doc Matter out of Place), Ming Jin Woo (the partially-animated Malaysian drama Stone Turtle), Azerbaijan director Hilal Baydarov (the drama Sermon to the Fish).

Up-and-coming helmers competing for the Golden Leopard include Germany’s Helena Wittmann, whose drama Human Flowers of Flesh will screen in competition; Carlos Conceiçao, in Locarno with the Portuguese-French-Angolan war drama Tommy Guns; and Italy’s Alessandro Comodin, attending the Swiss fest with the documentary dramedy The Adventures of Gigi the Law.

“Film festivals celebrate the talent of those involved in creating the films — they provide a creative hub for networking and exchanges, to keep the industry alive and offer professional opportunities to aspiring filmmakers and producers, they allow small films to be discovered and promoted,” says Locarno’s artistic director Giona A. Nazzaro, who notes that “more than 3,000 films” were submitted for consideration for this year’s festival. “The main challenge is always to be fair towards those that submit their work and to be as focused as possible in trying to deliver the best possible selection while keeping alive a conversation among the members of the selection committee.”

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Locarno’s lifetime achievement winners this year — including horror producer Jason Blum (Get Out, Halloween), First Cow and Showing Up director Kelly Reichardt, experimental musician-artist-director Laurie Anderson and political cinema pioneer Costa-Gavras (Z, Missing) — reflect the festival’s embracing spirit, celebrating cinema from the most avant-garde experimental to the most subversive of Hollywood genre films.

Nazzaro, who previously served as the general delegate of the International Film Critics’ Week at the Venice Film Festival and is a member of the artistic committee of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, notes that Locarno “has its own identity — [it’s] an avant-garde cutting-edge festival with a strong classicist vibe and lineups which provide discoveries and surprises.”

Locarno’s idyllic location, abutting the northern shore of scenic Lake Maggiore and ringed by the Swiss Alps, provided little protection from the ravages of COVID-19. Like international festivals worldwide, Locarno was forced to rethink everything during the pandemic, shifting most of its activities online in 2020, with only a handful of physical screenings in local theaters.

2021 was an in-person event, but the festival provided online services for industry professionals unable to travel to attend the fest.

For this year, Locarno, which was already undergoing a process of digitalization pre-pandemic, will continue in hybrid mode. While the physical event remains at the core, organizers are holding on to some pandemic-specific digital services, including Locarno Pro Online, the online industry program designed to support auteur cinema.

Custom-made for the international art-house industry, Locarno Pro Online offers a variety of services for sales agents, distributors, exhibitors, producers and filmmakers, among them First Look, a section that showcases films in any stage of post-production, and Heritage Online, a year-round database where streamers and potential buyers can watch available titles and have direct access to rights holders.

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“[Before the pandemic hit] film festivals and markets were already exploring digital solutions and hybrid models, which can be a valuable asset in the future, although in-person business still remains crucial for the film industry,” says Locarno Pro head Markus Duffner. “We will maintain our Locarno Pro Online structure, allowing those that are not able to come to Locarno to follow some of our activities and services. It is an opportunity to expand our reach outside the geographical limits of Locarno and Switzerland, but also to propose some services and activities all year long.”

Nazzaro notes that the pandemic didn’t cause the current disruption in the independent industry: “The perception itself of cinema and films was dramatically changing [before] but somehow things felt as if they could go on forever in the same mode” he says. “Those two years have not provoked changes, they have quite simply accelerated what was already happening. COVID-19 has dramatically accelerated transformations in the production and the release of films that were underway way before 2019.”

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Locarno Film Festival artistic director Giona A. Nazzaro.

Courtesy of Locarno Film Festival / Ti-Press / Massimo Pedrazzini

Fitting its reputation as an avant-garde festival, Locarno is looking to stay ahead of future trends. The fest’s latest initiative, launching this year, is the Locarno Green Project, which aims to raise awareness of environmentally-sound filmmaking. As part of this, Locarno will present the inaugural Pardo Verde WWF, launched in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund, which will honor a film in competition that best reflects or raises awareness of an important ecological issue. Also in the works is the Green Film Fund, designed to support projects dealing with environmental issues, which is slated to launch next year.

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“A cultural event like Locarno can act to generate, foster and disseminate a new perspective by incentivizing films and filmmakers that respect the ecosystem and tell new stories capable of raising public awareness,” notes Brunschwig. “At this moment in time, we need to rethink our approach and find new tools to tackle the challenges of the future.”

Locarno is also targeting younger filmmakers trying to get into the business. The Locarno Residency, which launches this year, is aimed at helping first-time filmmakers under 40 complete their inaugural feature. Ten participants, picked by Locarno’s artistic team on the basis of film projects submitted and their career profiles to date, will attend the 75th festival from Aug. 4-7,  and discuss their feature ideas with a jury of three film industry professionals. The jury will pick three projects — two international and one Swiss — from the first 10. Those three filmmakers will each receive extensive tutoring, involving both online and in-person sessions, lasting a year, with a mentoring session on their feature treatments to taking place from Dec. 5-18 in Venice, and a second screenplay session, lasting for the whole of March 2023, in Locarno at the Eranos Foundation.

“Locarno has always been known as the festival where the freest and most innovative new [filmmakers] are launched. Therefore, at a time when the production landscape is undergoing major changes, it is important to stand by the side of the young [filmmakers],” says Locarno programmer Daniela Persico of the initiative. “Compared to other development programs, we thought of a project that would be tailor-made for the three candidates who will get the final one-year scholarship. The aim will be to bring them to a final stage of project writing and to make their production structure stronger through targeted meetings at the festival, interfacing with our industry programs.”

But for its diamond anniversary, Locarno is hoping for a return to its pre-pandemic glory and to its unique balance of mainstream and independent. While the festival’s industry focus leans arthouse, Perciso notes that Locarno’s unique location provides a one-of-a-kind launch pad for studio releases as well. “Because we are truly an audience festival,” he says. “There is no better indicator than 8000 seats [in the Piazza Grande] open-air venue to feel how a film works.”