The 66th Locarno Film Festival ended last week with the unveiling of the award winners to an enthusiastic audience in the 8,000-seat, open-air Piazza Grande.
Italian journalist-film historian Carlo Chatrian, the Swiss event's new artistic director, can look back proudly on this year's 11-day festival as one of the best editions in recent years. Yet when, soon after the festival wrapped up last year, his predecessor, Olivier Père, suddenly announced his intention to stand down, it looked like a major blow for Locarno.
Père had raised Locarno's standards considerably with a bold, eclectic and open-minded film selection. His shrewd mix of challenging movies, famous guests and more popular films was attractive to a large professional public as well as general audience.
Faced with his French predecessor's formidable legacy, Chatrian opted for continuity. "I always thought that to inherit a festival with such a good reputation was a real opportunity, but also a great challenge," he says.
"We wanted to prove we could keep up such high standards through our film selection, a selection keen to show cinema in its full diversity. We wanted to build up a fruitful dialogue between the cinema of the past and the cinema of the present, between indie and mainstream productions, between documentary and fiction, film essay and experimental forms."
A festival is a place of participation and sharing, a place for encounters, he adds. "Today we are constantly discovering new ways of consuming images; in the face of this flood it is vital to have some places where these images can still be talked about, discussed and hosted. Cinema is a fleeting, fragile art which is jeopardised in equal measure by the economy, by aesthetic judgments or simply by the evolution of technology, but it is still an essential instrument for recounting the world, and its diversity must therefore be preserved. That is our aim."
At Locarno this year, guests such as English stars Christopher Lee and Jacqueline Bisset and Georgian director Otar Iosselliani shared their knowledge and experience with the festival-goers.
Iosselliani, who received the Golden Leopard career honour, said: "It is only Locarno that remains dedicated to art-house cinema and intellectual reflection, and that is willing to take risks to defend artistic films."
Chatrian also points to the importance of the festival's historical sections and the retrospective dedicated to American director George Cukor. "For me the Cukor retrospective was crucial: we have to relate to the past in order to understand the present," he says.
On a more contemporary note, the international competition section turned out to be a unique trip through world cinema, offering a wide range of films fictional and documentary, intense and poetic, politically and socially committed, and aesthetically challenging.
The international jury, headed by Filipino director Lav Diaz, awarded the Golden Leopard top prize to Catalan helmer Albert Serra's The Story of My Death. The most controversial film in the section, the Spanish-French co-production is a visual poem that imagines a meeting between Venetian seducer Giacomo Casanova and Transylvania's Count Dracula. Mesmerising, absorbing and subtly unsettling, the work evolves imperceptibly into a dark, esoteric, violent mood, revealing, in Serra's words, "the beauty of injustice and the obscure desire to be dominated and subjugated that is inherent to human nature".
Both the second-place Special Jury and the International Federation of Film Critics' Fipresci prizes went to Portuguese director Joaquim Pinto for What Now? Remind Me, his moving documentary of his daily struggle against hepatitis C and HIV.
South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo also triumphed at Locarno. Having premiered Nobody's Daughter Haewon at this year's Berlinale, his follow-up film, Our Sunhi, a delicate comedy centring on an introverted female film student, earned him the best director honour at the festival.
Finally, a film that inspired walkouts during its initial screening at Locarno ended up taking the top prize in the Filmmakers of the Present competition dedicated to emerging talents. A project of Harvard University's Sensory Ethnography Lab, Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez's Manakamana recounts, slowly and meditatively, the journey undertaken by Nepalese villagers to a sacred temple by cable car - and demands no small amount of patience from its viewers.