One of the best films I saw at Locarno Film Festival this year was a mere 20 minutes long. Part of the Fuori concorso Shorts section, The Green Serpent: Of Vodka, Men and Distilled Dreams (a Swiss-Russian co-production) documents the merits and demerits that vodka holds for three Russian men -- actor Aleksandr Bashirov, poet Mstislav Biserov and physicist Nikolai Mikhailovich Budnev. Written, directed and co-produced by Benny Jaberg, the film had me in stitches as it repeatedly nailed, with both poignancy and hilarity, that relatable contradiction that follows an alcohol binge: emotional fragility and a sympathy for something as banal as a fluffy pet on the one hand, and a desire to see humankind annihilated on the other. Receiving its world premiere at Locarno, Jaberg's film is also a coincidental ode to the recently deceased Russian filmmaker Alexey Balabanov, whose last film Me Too (2012) also saw a trio of vodka-swilling men in a doomed pursuit of happiness.
Casually strolling along to the first public screening of The Green Serpent, I was surprised to find myself in a queue that extended well beyond the door to the street outside. Literally the last person allowed in, I sat in the stuffy pot of discomfort that was Cinecentro Rialto's 180-seat auditorium, sweating like there was no tomorrow. The uproarious laughter didn't help. But the capacity attendance spoke of an enthusiasm for short films that to this Englishman was as welcome and invigorating as it was alien. In Locarno at least, the public seem game for anything.
Screening alongside The Green Serpent were fellow shorts Sorciere japonaise (Germany), by Romeo Grunfelder, and The End of Walnut Grove (Austria), by Nikolaus Eckhard, Valentin and Severin Fiala and Klaus Haidl. Both offered an interplay between darkness and light: in the former, a group of people roam a forest at night in search of something wondrous, while the latter takes place in a world without light, in which humans can only hear one another when they shut off the deafeningly loud generators that fuel their personal lamps. Since both films are also set in a distinctly rural setting, they overlapped nicely with America (France), a haunting seven-minute single-take panorama of a lake by Valerie Massadian.
Elsewhere in the Fuori concorso Shorts strand, Lauren Archand's Le tableau (France) also featured a rural setting, as an aging couple host relatives and friends at their country home. Though one partner is suffering from dementia, the pair's love for one another is undimmed. In its latter stages, a sinister tone creeps in -- prior to one of the most beautiful dissolves I've seen in recent years. Darkness and light played a large part in Archand's film too, and featured heavily in Joaquin Cocina's stop-motion animation Los Andes (Chile), in which a mass of paper waste recycles itself into a giant physical force, one whose booming voice prophesies a new civilization -- or laments the end of an old one.
The reappropriation of matter was a more obvious preoccupation of During The Day My Vision Is Perfect (Germany), Benjamin Ramirez Perez's impressively textured reworking of scenes from Antonioni's L'avventura (1960). Taking a canonical arthouse film as its starting point, During the Day strips away all sign of human life and creates an abstract riff on undressing and the violent interaction between black and white. It reminded me, in favorable ways, of Nicolas Provost's shorts -- though when I mentioned the Belgian filmmaker to Perez, he claimed not to have heard of him.
If During the Day removed human figures from an older film to emphasize the physicality of their movement in other ways -- something that's easier seen than described -- then Adrian Villar Rojas's What Fire Brought to Me (Brazil/Argentina) took pains to depict physical labour as a defining feature of being a human. At 43 minutes, this mid-length film took up more space in my notepad than most of the features I saw in Locarno -- its grinding pace and remarkable imagery (and sound design) made it an early contender for my favorite of the festival. I especially liked its unspoken argument that people do not simply exist within or alongside nature, but actively engage with and materially change it in order to advance their own survival. One shot in particular stood out: that of an opening in some thick foliage, through which we see the great architectural achievements of a cityscape beyond it.
Another recurrent feature of the Fuori concorso selection of shorts was the essayistic. Mauro Santini's Attesa di un'estate (frammenti di vita trascorsa) (Italy) takes the form of a video diary that shows domestic transition as well as its director's keen eye for elemental effects upon windowpanes -- rain drops abound. More frustratingly, Un conte de Michel de Montaigne (France/Switzerland), the latest mid-lengther from essay-film heavyweight Jean-Marie Straub, screened to its audience sans sous-titres as per its director's request. As a succession of very simple set-ups in which Barbara Ulrich reads out Montaigne's essay II/6, however, translation didn't seem to matter. I suspect the film would have been just as dull had I been able to understand it.
More interesting were two other two mid-length films, from Locarno regulars Joao Pedro Rodrigues and Joao Rui Guerra da Mata. Mahjong (Portugal) is a noiresque navigation of Varziela, Vila do Conde -- Portugal's largest Chinatown -- that plods along with an increasingly befuddling plot. Not quite as engaging as the directors' previous film The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012), it does capture a strange sense of place. The King's Body (also Portugal), meanwhile, is an amusing and deceptively complex thirty-minute essay on masculinity, history and Portugal's first king. Directed by Rodrigues alone, the film introduces to us a cast of pumped-up males in front of a green screen, who are asked to undress and read out historical documents, and to discuss their work, bodybuilding, tattoos and so on.
While watching the film, I was reminded of the recent portmanteau project Historic Centre, for which four higher-profile names -- Kaurismaki, Costa, Erice and de Oliveira -- responded to Guimaraes, Portugal's first city. A predictably uneven project, it would have been boosted mightily by Rodrigues' contribution: The King's Body asks contemporary males to play and reimagine Afonso I, whose reported birthplace, coincidentally, was Guimaraes.
Click here for more on Michael Pattison and this year's Critics Academy.