Locarno Finds Its Edge

 

The centerprise of the Locarno Film Festival has always been the Piazza Grande, the sprawling central square of the picturesque lakeside city nestled in the shadow of the Swiss Alps. For 10 days every summer, the plaza is filled with as many as 8,800 seats, and Europe's largest movie screen is erected at its eastern end.

By any measure, it's a breathtaking location. It's also a major headache for Locarno's artistic director, Olivier Pere. "The biggest challenge of this job is figuring out the films to screen in the Piazza Grande," says Pere, 41, a Frenchman who came to Locarno from the provocative Directors' Fortnight sidebar in Cannes. "You want films with mass appeal that are also interesting to serious film lovers and that have the kind of open-minded, curious and global vision of film that we think is so important."

It may also be where an artistic director has the most freedom to leave his mark. And if that's the case, then this year's edition is vintage Pere, an avowed internationalist when it comes to his taste in film.

Among the Piazza Grande selections: the opening-night world premiere of The Sweeney, a crime drama from Brit director Nick Love; Ruby Sparks, an unlikely fantasy-romance hybrid from American helmers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris; Steven Soderbergh's male-stripper sensation Magic Mike; Wrong, a quirky comedic drama from enigmatic French director Quentin Dupieux; Motorway from Hong Kong's Soi Cheang; and the closing film More Than Honey, from homegrown Swiss director Markus Imhoof.

For many observers, this year's lineup is proof that after two editions, Pere has made the festival his.

"Now the festival is becoming a reflection of Olivier Pere," says Antonio Mariotti, an entertainment journalist with Corriere del Ticino, Switzerland's largest Italian-language newspaper. "The first year included a lot of what was there before, the second was still a learning experience. But the third is the full reflection of the artistic director."

Pere's mark goes beyond just the Piazza Grande selections: The jury will be headed by Thai art house darling Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and actors Charlotte Rampling and Gael Garcia Bernal will receive Excellence Awards at the fest. But the choice that most bears Pere's touch is the bestowing of the event's prestigious Leopard of Honor award to French auteur Leos Carax, a cult director who took a 13-year break from filmmaking until releasing the typically inscrutable Holy Motors this year.

"What thrills me is that we'll be helping to bring Carax to a new generation," says Pere. "Many of the people most excited about his presence are too young to have known him in the 1980s and 1990s."

It's no accident that Pere is courting a younger audience. Now in its 65th edition, the fest is as old as Cannes and nearly as old as Venice. Pere has helped prevent the rust from setting in at a pivotal time. For the most part, the strategy has worked, but some complain about the fest becoming too idiosyncratic. Indeed, every year under Pere's tenure, there have been a few films that leave viewers scratching their heads.

But for many, the grumbling offers proof that Pere is doing his job. "The goal of Locarno is to be provocative, to elicit a response," says Luciano Barisone, the director of Visions du Reel, a Swiss documentary festival, who has attended every Locarno edition since 1986. "I think there is little doubt that Pere is doing that."

LOCARNO FILM FESTIVAL

  • WHEN: Aug. 1-11
  • WHERE: The Piazza Grande, Locarno, Switzerland

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3 LOCARNO HOT SPOTS NOT TO MISS

La Rinascente Hotel
Via al Tazzino 3; 011-41-91-751-1331

A new choice in Locarno, open only since March but in a villa that dates to the 16th century, La Rinascente is a 15-room boutique hotel (rooms $200 to $450 a night) already booked for the duration of the festival. The La Rinascente Gourmet is a high-end restaurant with a creative spin on local Ticino cuisine (similar to Lombard cuisine from Italy), while the hotel's La Tavola eatery is a more informal, moderately priced alternative. Both are open throughout the festival, and the hotel also is opening a tented area for drinks and snacks that will stay open until 3 a.m. during the fest. For film lovers, the villa the facilities are based in once belonged to the noble Italian Visconti family, which later included legendary Italian director Luchino Visconti, director of Il gattopardo (The Leopard), the symbol of the Locarno festival.

Osteria Chiara
Vicolo Chiara 1, Muralto; 011-41-91-743-3296

When you get tired of the crowds near the Piazza Grande, head to the Osteria Chiara, which is in the neighboring city of Muralto but less than 10 minutes by foot from the piazza. Tranquil and quaint, the restaurant (a fixed-priced lunch during the fest is $29; a four-course dinner is $72, excluding wine) can seem like an oasis amid the bustle of the festival.

La Rotonda
West of the Piazza Grande

A collection of ethnic food stalls, live music and artisan souvenir stands, La Rotonda is one of the liveliest places to get a bite to eat in Locarno. Don't count on service, though: It's first come, first served for the inexpensive fare, but it's where festivalgoers and locals meet. The communal seating means it's about the easiest spot in Locarno to strike up a conversation with new friends.

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