It’s no wonder that film festivals are schizophrenic creatures, given the number of different functions they have to perform simultaneously. Each of the major international festivals must juggle their oft-conflicting duties as a showcase for local filmmaking talent, a glitzy red-carpet event for the host city, and an incisive snapshot of the current state of world cinema in order to keep the cultural politicians, commercial sponsors, and international film press on board. The considerable straddling involved here is perhaps one reason for the frequent “jack of all trades, master of none” feeling that emerges as a result.
For its part, Locarno does at least seem to have found a canny solution to this conundrum, farming out nearly the entire glamour shebang to put bums on sets at the vast screenings in the town’s central Piazza Grande, thus freeing up the competition to focus on the matter at hand: cinema. While this strategy did indeed yield the mouth-watering cinephile one-two punch of Matías Piñeiro and Lav Diaz on the first day, the steady stream of walkouts during both premiere screenings indicate that even Locarno’s juggling act has yet to be perfected.
It felt like a veritable stampede of people left the auditorium around two-thirds of the way into Piñeiro’s dizzyingly exuberant The Princess of France, his typically playful idea of repeating the same scene three times with different characters and different outcomes proving a bridge too far for many. Yet if you’re willing to play along with Piñeiro’s games, getting lost in his cheerful labyrinths of shifting characters, romantic entanglements, and cultural references is sheer joy. This latest instalment in his ongoing Shakespeare project (following Rosalinda and Viola) revolves around a theater troupe reassembling one year after their last Shakespeare production to adapt it for radio, the number of possible amorous couplings between the two men and five women having grown exponentially in the interim.
Dialogue declaimed at thrilling speed, perpetual romantic indecision and graceful, gliding camerawork once again ensue, though what’s most impressive about the film is how perfectly it reconciles familiarity and innovation. Whether the opening wide shot of a football game descending into choreographed silliness, the giddy reframing of Shakespeare as rap, or the oddly audience disturbing third-act shift into the realm of conditionality, these new additions to Piñeiro’s world remain true to its previous nature while deepening and enriching it yet further. In perhaps the film’s most exhilarating scene, three characters at an art museum give a rapid-fire breakdown of the work of forgotten French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau, their delivery channelling Piñeiro’s by now established dialogue style so perfectly that you could shut your eyes and think they were spouting Shakespeare.
While Diaz isn’t perhaps as willing to tamper with his box of tricks, there can be no doubt that From What Is Before finds him at the height of his powers. As always, the sheer duration of the film, clocking in at a hefty 338 minutes, is at once an endurance test of sorts and an opportunity to create a level of narrative and visual detail that pays ever-greater dividends as the film progresses. Opening in a rural area of the Philippines, the film spends its first hour and a half or so leisurely exploring the terrain and the rites of the people that inhabit the entirely timeless 1970 setting with an almost neorealistic respect for natural duration, while gradually homing in on the village that will later form the scene of the drama. In time, characters emerge from the flow of images: a saintly healer looking after her mentally handicapped sister; a rancher with an adopted nephew; a local drunk and alcohol dealer; a suspiciously inquisitive seller of mosquito nets and rugs. And as the film unfolds, they slowly, yet inexorably, become caught in the entirely unseen crossfire between the government soldiers and rebel forces seeking to take control of the area.
Suggesting a microhistorical examination of the early-’70s adoption of martial law in the Philippines filtered through the prism of a 19th-century novel of ideas, the film marries the specific to the universal in truly masterful fashion, the villagers’ collective, inescapable sins finding their savage echo in the bloodthirsty conflict raging around them, kept pointedly out of view until the final image. And Diaz is even able to find moments of quiet beauty right in the eye of this slowly building vortex of religion, politics, and morality: a stricken man on the shoreline, his grief seemingly directed at the waves themselves; a makeshift funeral pyre slowly floating downstream; and a man comforting his sobbing child in the forest as the soft rain drowns his cries.