Five Things That Set The Locarno Film Fest Apart

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Locarno's Piazza Grande

From Europe's largest outdoor screening venue to its stunning Swiss location, the 66-year-old event offers a distinctly relaxed atmosphere for film lovers.

ROME – With its remote setting in the foothills of the Swiss Alps, near the northern tip of Lake Maggiore, the Locarno Film Festival, which kicks off Wednesday and runs until Aug. 17, seems to be an unlikely spot for one of the world’s most enduring film events.

The host town's population is just 15,000, the closest airport is across the border in Italy, and Switzerland lacks the deep cinema tradition of Italy, France, and Germany, which surround it. And yet Europe's third oldest film festival -- only Venice and Cannes pre-date it -- has not just survived, it has thrived. The Hollywood Reporter asked some key figures with ties to the festival what keeps the 66-year-old event relevant. Here are the top five reasons:

• The Piazza Grande. During the festival, the town's main square is transformed into Europe’s largest outdoor film venue, with a massive screen, great acoustics, and seating for 8,000. "Everyone is drawn to the Piazza Grande when they see it," says Morando Morandini, an 89-year-old film journalist who first attended the Locarno festival more than 50 years ago and who played himself in a 1987 film, Remake, set entirely during the event. Adds Carlo Chatrian, a former Locarno programmer who took over as the festival’s artistic director last year: "The Piazza Grande is the festival’s main selling point, and a great proving ground for films to gauge their appeal."

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• The Public. Natives of Locarno have grown up with the festival in their lives, and it shows. Discussions in coffee bars and restaurants during the festival reveal a level of sophistication and passion for films few towns can match. Chatrian says this helps draw filmmakers interested in showing their films to film lovers rather than to industry pros, as is the case in many other festivals. Producer Luc Déry, whose 2011 film Monsieur Lazhar premiered in Locarno before earning rave reviews on the festival circuit, is bringing is latest project, Gabrielle, to the festival this year. “We had such a positive experience last time that when we were making Gabrielle we already had Locarno in mind,” he says.

• History. Not only is Locarno one of the world’s oldest festivals, it has a sterling record of discovering new talents. Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Aleksandr Sokurov and Abbas Kiarostami are among the acclaimed directors to appear in Locarno before they were well known. And those discoveries often pay dividends later: Baltasar Kormákur was well received with his debut film, 101 Reykjavik, in Locarno in 2000. Partially based on that experience he brought his big budget action comedy 2 Guns back to the event this year. “Who knows which of the latest group of new directors at the festival we’ll be talking about in ten or 20 years?” Chatrian asks. 

• Industry Days. Not exactly a market, Industry Days is more of a “context” for players to meet and discuss possible collaborations. “Industry Days is tranquil, non-regimented, a happy hour where people can meet and discuss in an informal light,” Chatrian says. It’s small, but it has its fans: “It’s the only market-type event I actually look forward to attending,” says a veteran Italian producer, who asked not to be named.

• Independence. Locarno may be one of a small handful of truly European festivals, with no nationalistic tendencies or political concerns or influence from short-term industry trends in the DNA of many other festivals. “Locarno has always been distinct because of its freedom with the films it chooses,” says Italian critic Paolo Mereghetti. It’s been that way from the start: Roberto Rosselini’s Roma Cittá Aperta (Rome, Open City), a then-controversial examination of Italy during WWII, made while much of the country was still smoldering, screened at the inaugural Locarno fest in 1946. And it continues: twice in the last five years – including Pippo Debono’s Sangue (Blood) this year -- the festival has selected films about Italy’s Red Brigades, a Marxist-Leninist insurgency that ravaged Italy in the 1970s and early 1980s. The films controversial nature of the films meant that they have traditionally been kept at an arm’s length by Italian fests.

Twitter: @EricJLyman