From the outset to the ’60s

Michelangelo Antonioni
Michelangelo Antonioni
© Festival del film Locarno
Grand Hotel
Grand Hotel
© Festival del film Locarno
Viale Stazione, entrance for the Grand Hotel, Locarno 1947
Viale Stazione, entrance for the Grand Hotel, Locarno 1947
© Festival del film Locarno
Milos Forman, 1964
Milos Forman, 1964
© Festival del film Locarno
Marlene Dietrich and Josef Von Sternberg (left), 1960
Marlene Dietrich and Josef Von Sternberg (left), 1960
© Festival del film Locarno
François Truffaut (left) and Claude de Givray, 1961
François Truffaut (left) and Claude de Givray, 1961
© Festival del film Locarno

Neorealism and the Nouvelles Vagues
by Morando Morandini

The summer of 1946 was a momentous one in the history of European cinema. In the space of ten days, two new international festivals came to life and a third was reborn. On the evening of the 23rd August, the Locarno film festival kicked off with a screening of Giacomo Gentiluomo’s O sole mio on the sloping lawn of the Grand Hotel.

First launched on the Venice Lido in 1932 as part of the Biennale under the title “Esposizione d’Arte Cinematografica”, the Venetian “mostra” was re-launched on 31st August. On 1st September, the inaugural edition of the Cannes film festival began. It had been legally founded in 1939 on the eve of World War Two. The Locarno International Festival of Film began at short notice following the sudden demise of Lugano’s “Rassegna Internazionale del Film”, which ran for two years in 1944 and 1945, after Lugano’s citizens rejected the construction of an amphitheatre in a popular vote on 2nd June, 1946. The first edition was put together in less than three months.

Other European festivals of importance would come to life in the following decade. These included Karlovy Vary in 1950 (preceded by Mariànské Làzné, or Marienbad, in 1946, and then Gottwaldow, or Zlin, in Moravia), Berlin in 1951 and San Sebastian in 1954. From 1959 onwards, the festival of Karlovy Vary would alternate with that of Moscow.

In Locarno in 1946, the line-up comprised 15 films, four of which were Italian. Among these was Roberto Rossellini’s Roma cittá aperta (Rome, Open City) . The jury, which featured a 25-year-old Alida Valli at the height of her stardom, ignored it. Paisà would suffer the same fate the following year.  Only in 1948 did Rossellini garner official recognition on the banks of the River Verbano for Germania anno zero ( Germany Year Zero ) which won the Grand Prix.

The United States, or rather Hollywood, presented six films – three of which were made during the war: Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette (1946), Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and René Clair’s last American film And Then There Were None (1945). Clair would go on to triumph at Locarno’s 1947 edition with Le Silence est d’or (Silence is Golden) which picked up three prizes: Best Film, Best Director and Best Male Actor (Maurice Chevalier).

Beyond the common language and the strong links at every level between the Canton of Ticino and Italy (think of the anti-fascist exiles who took shelter in Switzerland during the war), the festival organizers’ attention to Italian cinema can also be explained by the creative and innovative vitality of the works coming out of Rome’s Cinecitta at that time under the banner of Neorealism. 

It was not by chance that there was a quasi retrospective sidebar in 1954, entitled “Aspects of Italian Neorealism”. It screened and re-screened films deemed most representative of the style, ranging from titles such as Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) and La terra trema ( The Earth Trembles , 1948) to works by two emerging directors of the early 1950s: Antonioni and Fellini. The sidebar was accompanied by a cautious debate on whether Neorealism was or was not in crisis.

Rossellini, especially with Viaggo in Italia (Voyage in Italy, 1953), had set off on a new road down which Antonioni would advance further with Il grido ( The Cry, 1957). The latter had its world premier and won its first award in Locarno.

From the start, the official language of the festival has been that of Montaigne. As in Italy, French culture has always had a strong influence in the Canton of Ticino even though statistically the percentage of French-speakers in Switzerland is relatively low. They account for some 18 percent of the population against German speakers who account for 65 percent and Italian speakers who account for some 10 percent. (Census data 1980)

But if you remove the names of René Clair and Jacques Becker ( Casque d’or , 1952) the presence of the French in Locarno in the early days was negligible. In 1949, however, the Grand Prix was awarded to La ferme des sept péchés (The Farm of Seven Sins) , the second film by Jean Devaivre (1912-2004), who after a promising start made Le fils de Caroline Chérie ( The Son of Dear Caroline , 1954) and then moved onto another profession. The fact that Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette ( Bicycle Thieves , 1948) only won the Special Prize of the Jury, provoked arguments and indignant protests and ignited a polemic between the old and young, traditionalists and innovators that would be a constant of the festival for the next 30 years.

In a separate case, Le petit monde de Don Camillo , the French version of Julien Duvivier’s Italo-French production Don Camillo , was screened at Locarno in 1952 ahead of the film’s Italian release. It was a huge success with the public. It is not – and could not be – our task to give an account of the internal workings of an event that, especially in its first 15 years, was marked by strong political and commercial pressures, poisonous polemics, factious accusations, and open and prejudiced hostility (especially in the German Swiss press), often linked to the hysteria surrounding the Cold War. 

Its history includes two suspensions (1951 and 1956); questionable, varied and not always homogenous organisational structures; diverse phases which are not always easily identifiable, periods of recognition and periods of denigration and oscillations between Society and Culture, Commerce and Art and engagement and disengagement.

For a more detailed account, readers can consult Dalmazio Ambrosioni’s Locarno città del cinema. I cinquant’ anni del Festival Internazionale del Film (publisher, Armando Dadò. Locarno, 1998) and Guglielmo Volontiero’s Dalle suggestioni del Parco alla Grande Feste del Cinema. Storia del Festival di Locarno 1946-1997 (Marseille, Venice, 1997).

Even in its early years, in spite of everything, Locarno’s merits are many. Its attention to Italian Neorealism and French cinema has already been mentioned. It is worth adding that in 1958 Locarno became the first festival to fete the Nouvelle Vague at an international level when Claude Chabrol won the Silver Sail for Le beau Serge ( Bitter Reunion ). In 1962, François Reichenbach’s Un coeur gros comme ça , noteworthy mainly within the confines of Nouvelle Vague, won the Golden Sail. Back home, the film won the Prix Delluc.

Amid controversy, suspicion and accusations of pro-communism, Locarno, then under the direction of Vinicio Beretta, opened its doors in the 1950s to the films of Eastern Europe. In 1955, it became the first European film festival to show the cinema of the People’s Republic of China with the screening of Che Houei’s Jumao Xin .

In the same decade, the winners included Soviet director Grigorij V. Aleksandrov’s Kompositor Glinka in 1953 and Czech Jirì Trnka puppet film Princ Bajaja and Wolfgang Staude‘s Rotation (GDR) in 1954. Trnka returned in 1955 with Le rossignol et l’empereur de Chine . In 1958, A Q Zhenzuan (based on Lu Hsun’s the True story of Ah Q) would pick up Best Actor. That same year, Fipresci (the International Federation of Film Critics) gave Il Pisito, the Spanish-language debut of director Marco Ferreri, a Special Mention.

In 1960, the Golden Sail went to Mauro Bolognini’s Il bell’ Antonio . Russian Mark S. Donskoj’s Fomà Gordeyev (Gordeyev Family) clinched the Silver Sail. Czech Jana Brejchova won Best Actress for her performance in Jiri Krejcik’s Vassy Princip (Higher Principle) .

It was a fortunate period for Czechoslovak cinema. In 1963, the Golden Sail went to Transport z ráje (Transport from Paradise ), an intense drama about the Terezin Ghetto and the Shoah directed by Zbynek Brynych. In 1964, the same prize went to Cerny Petr (Black Peter) by 30-year-old Milos Forman, then a key exponent of the Nova Vlna.

These were the years in which a key and enduring feature of the festival -- its focus on young auteurs and young, emerging cinema -- started to take shape. Despite adjustments, it remains one of the festival’s main characteristics. Linked to this, is the role Locarno has played, and not just as a showcase, in developing and supporting new Swiss cinema. The festival awarded Henry Brandt’s Quand nous étions petits enfants ( When We Were Children ) the Silver Sail in 1961, and Alain Tanner’s Charles mort ou vif (Charles, Dead or Alive) , the Golden Sail in 1969. It has also drawn the attention of international critics and the Swiss public, perhaps the former more than the latter, to the works of Soutter, Goretta, Schmid, Reusser, Körfer, Imhoof and Murer.

A common thread spans the nearly 60 years between the first tumultuous directorship of Venicio Beretta and the latter day command of Irene Bignardi: a desire to mould the festival’s “identity” out of its very “diversity”. In spite of the contradictions, internal and external problems, changes of course, the festival has been a source of symbolic illumination, historical nourishment and cultural renewal for the Canton of Ticino, for that which Enrico Filippini defines as its strange habit of de-historicizing: “It’s not that Ticino or Switzerland aren’t part of history but they act as if they weren’t.”

The festival’s retrospectives, in profitable competition with Berlin and Venice, have contributed to this cultural enrichment. Kicking off with Ingmar Bergman in 1959, ahead of all the other European film festivals, the retrospectives have spotlighted and rediscovered filmmakers of international standing.  They range from Bunuel (in 1960), to Vigo, from De Oliveira to Sirk, from Russian Boris Barnet (an uncomfortable figure for the Soviet zealots of socialist realism) to Japanese directors such as Ozu, and Kinoshita, from the French Sacha Guitry to Egyptian Youssef Chahine, from Méliès to Trnka, from Indian Satyajit Ray to Luchino Visconti (in 1969) to the American John Ford, Preston Sturges, King Vidor and Frank Tashlin.

The publisher Raimondo Rezzonico, who was the president of the festival in the final 20 years of the 20th century, was not exaggerating when he said, and continued to repeat, that it is impossible to imagine Locarno without its festival.

Useful links

Archive page by SRG SSR about the Festival del film Locarno from 1950 to 2014, available in italian, french and german.

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