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“Cinema is back,” the motto boldly reads in the intro playing before every film at the 74th Locarno Film Festival. The new festival director Giona A. Nazzaro told me back in January: “I consider it a duty of mine to do a physical edition of the festival, to reopen the Piazza Grande and make this edition as competitive and beautiful as the 73 editions preceding it.” Nazzaro replaces former artistic director Lili Hinstin. So, along with the face masks and social distancing, what other changes are afoot?

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (2021)

Well, for one thing there’s a definite shift towards genre. We have science fiction in After Blue, an interwar police procedural in Hinterland and a Naked Gun-style Icelandic comedy in Cop Secret. Yet the relationship with genre is never straightforward. Take the winner of the Pardo d’Oro – Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, directed by Edwin. This Indonesian adaptation of Eka Kurniawan’s novel is an affectionate tribute to 1980s martial arts movies laced with an offbeat romance. But given the inciting incident is erectile dysfunction, it delivers a low-spinning heel kick to the machismo associated with the genre.

The best director award went to Abel Ferrara for Zeros and Ones, a postmodern thriller starring Ethan Hawke, who plays a soldier in Rome looking for his twin brother (also Hawke). He also features in a Zoom intro and outro as ‘himself’, in which he dishes the kind of platitudes you expect in DVD extras before revealing this too is part of the film. The film joins a plethora of low-budget attempts to make a virtue of lockdown necessity. But here, the empty streets of Rome, a masked military presence and the constant night gift Ferrara with an ambience of dread he employs well.         

Mad God (2021)

Phil Tippett’s Mad God represented another form of low-budget filmmaking, but added a Kickstarter with some hidden costs. The film took 30 years to complete and took a toll on his mental health. Tippett told me he knew the film was finished when they admitted him to the psychiatric ward. The visual effects genius was in Locarno to receive the 2021 Ticinomoda Vision Award and took the opportunity to unveil his masterpiece. It’s a cornucopia of technical artistry, put to the service of a nihilistic view of a hostile, excremental universe full of suffering and death: a Mr Creosote of animation, crammed to the gills with cultural references and spewing them out gloriously. 

The Legionnaire (2021)

A theme dominating Locarno was that of movement and displacement. Neus Ballús’s The Odd-Job Men tells the story of a young Moroccan electrician, Moha (Mohamed Mellali), who must get through his trial week with an antagonistic colleague Valero (Valero Escolar). This Spanish comedy is elevated by the performances of the two leads, who shared the top acting honours. Mellali has a Keatonesque impassivity compared to Valero’s constant whinging, but the real jokes are the middle-class households in which they find themselves fish out of water. Hleb Papou uses the frame of the police thriller in The Legionnaire to tell the story of Daniel (Germano Gentile), the sole Black face in an elite Roman riot squad. His brother Patrick (Maurizio Bousso) leads the resistance to the mass eviction of his housing block, which Daniel’s squad will have to carry out. The irony is that Daniel and Patrick are completely Roman – something a term like ‘second-generation immigrant’ would implicitly deny – and yet they are still not accepted.

The Sacret Spirit (2021)

Bertrand Mandico’s After Blue features a more radical displacement, with Earth’s population transported to another planet where all the men die off. A mother and daughter are sent on a mission to hunt an outlaw called Kate Bush. Its aesthetic mixes Roger Dean poster art and Barbarella (1968). At over two hours, its three jokes are stretched thin but there’s no faulting the audacity. An Earthbound but similarly SF-themed comedy was Chema Garcia Ibarra’s The Sacred Spirit. When a community of ufologists lose their leader, José Manuel (Nacho Fernández) takes over. What at first seems to be a comedy of likeable credulous losers pushes us towards hoping their beliefs will be backed up by a magical air. But before you can say Lanthimos, the tone shifted to significantly darker. This was typical of much of the programme: tempting the audience to wander into the alley of genre only to be coshed by a persistently harsh reality. Ibarra’s film feels like a consummate summation in the age of QAnon of good people doing bad things by following their magical thinking down the rabbit hole or to the stars. 

Further reading

She Will unearths feminine trauma buried by time

By Caitlin Quinlan

She Will unearths feminine trauma buried by time

Dead Flash proves Bertrand Mandico is best tolerated in smaller doses

By Jessica Kiang

Dead Flash proves Bertrand Mandico is best tolerated in smaller doses

The Legionnaire examines racial tensions amongst Roman riot police

By John Bleasdale

The Legionnaire examines racial tensions amongst Roman riot police

Mad God writhes through an underworld drenched in bodily fluids

By John Bleasdale

Mad God writhes through an underworld drenched in bodily fluids