By Mónica Delgado

These two feature films presented in the international competition section of the Locarno festival, in its 2021 edition, are like two opposite poles. On the one hand, they reflect the eclectic spirit of the selection, which wants to reveal itself as a panorama of works of diverse descent and intention, also taking into account that there is a new director -Giona A. Nazzaro- who wants to give a particular touch to her management. And on the other, these are two experiences that could also illustrate two trends in some festivals today.

Al Naher (The river), by veteran Lebanese filmmaker Ghassan Salhab, forms a triptych with The Mountain (2010) and Al-wadi (The Valley, 2014), works that have the territory as a determining factor for the course and climate of the stories, since through these spaces or landscapes the nature of the relationships between the characters is defined. The three films propose an existential search from minimalist forms, or appeal to an unconventional sense of montage, with slight juxtapositions that take the films out of any realism. For his part, Al Naher shows a different edge in the treatment of space and time, revealing Ghassan Salhab as a great filmmaker dedicated to expanding the cinematographic experience as an opportunity to examine the human mind. Even more so if we remember that The Valley is a film about an amnesic man who tries to recover passages of his life from the harshness of the deserts or from the ghostly characters that surround him. Or like in The Mountain, where a traveler arrives at a hotel to rebuild his life after some violent events. Without being psychological films, the clear style of Ghassan Salhab proposes an extrapolation of some emotional instabilities, amorous or existential doubts, to the textures of the territory or space, in addition to adding a relaxed rhythm of long shots.

In Al Naher he complements the perspectives of the two previous parts of the triptych insofar as there is a tension here between the only two characters in the entire footage. With echoes of Antonioni, here we witness the follow-up of a couple who barely talk to each other, who after having lunch in a country restaurant, and without much logic, will lose themselves in an immense forest. The woman (Yumna Marwan), who has no name, seems to be out of step with Hassan (Ali Suliman). Both will go on their own through different paths in this forest, and although they meet in a couple of moments, the longest of the film  -where they talk about the past or how they are understanding their links from the social plane of the country- then they resume their different paths, to graph their own love disconnections.

From the way in which the filmmaker Ghassan Salhab poses this archetypal couple (quasi ghostly, already allegorical, figures as in a Bressonian universe), the territory is also abstracted due to various factors, such as some sounds of war planes and helicopters, warnings of mines, bullet boxes or weapons, which give an account of a country like Lebanon going through various war crises. However, the spirit that governs the film is that of the impossible love story, of a spent couple, who seem to find each other and move away from their memories at various times.

The most interesting thing about Al Naher, one of the most striking films in the international competition, is the symbolic correspondences that the filmmaker forges for the female figure and the male figure from the components of nature, such as the river, the caves ( as a female cavity or threshold), the trees, the dry leaves, and that show the power of images, without the need for dialogue; just thoughtful suggestions.

On the other hand, Soul of a beast, by the Swiss Lorenz Merz is a type of cinema in a pop key, which little by little gives way to the need for agglutination, for visual exaggeration without much skill. It is a hysterical film that addresses hysterical characters. Although it is a story of youthful love affairs, which at times seems to want to delve into some codes of love triangle romances or the coming of age, in this second film by Merz we find several formulations for a film that seems to have no depth in the treatment of the characters (that’s why my allusion to pop, since there is more an idea of ??shaping the banality without much more else).

Soul of a Beast focuses on Gabriel (Pablo Caprez), an 18-year-old skater who has a three-or four-year-old son, who falls in love with Corey (Ella Rumpf), the girlfriend of his best friend Joel (Tonatiuh Radz). Little by little, we know that Gabriel only cares for his son, and that his former partner, the child’s mother, is a person in psychiatric treatment and whose mother is a famous actress who only spends a pension. But, the filmmaker not only focuses the tension of the film on the father and son relationship, but on the infatuation (amour fou) between Gabriel and Corey, a relaxed young woman who wants to travel to South America; something which to be understood as excessive love, must be emphasized from the staging.

Although there are clues that can give  certain symbolic material to the title of the film (in an initial sequence the trio of friends enter a zoo on drugs to free some pumas and others), this aspect is not clear, since the same protagonism of Gabriel disperses before the appearance of new characters. On the other hand, to materialize this universe of youthful self-confidence, Merz uses a voice-over in Japanese, of an omniscient narrator, who is describing some moments, and then yields to the diversity of languages ??that appear between the characters, German, English and French, as a Babel or cosmopolitan intention. But beyond the anecdote about the languages, the filmmaker uses in his montage overprints, kaleidoscopic filters for scenes of lysergic trances, fast concatenations and neon lights to illustrate a spirit of nocturnal waste, which at the same time allows the return by the Japanese narrator to give the film an air of anime.

After his first film, Cherry Pie (2013), Merz shows an interest in developing some chaotic atmospheres, to build this youthful instability from a carefully photographed work; however, he does not manage to weave the soul of the beast well, which the film announces , since it hardly appears in its wild, free and disruptive dimension.

Concorso internazionale: Al Naher
Director and script: Ghassan Salhab
Cast: Ali Suliman, Yumna Marwan
Producer: Tania El Khoury
Photography: Bassem Fayad
Editing: Michèle Tyan
Sound: Karine Bacha, Rana Eid, Florent Lavallée
Music: Sharif Sehnaoui
Lebanon, France, Germany, Qatar, 2021, 101 mi

Concorso internazionale: Soul of a beast
Director and script: Lorenz Merz
Photography: Fabian Kimoto, Lorenz Merz
Editing: Lorenz Merz, Noemi Preiswerk
Sound: Karine Bacha, Rana Eid, Florent Lavallée
Music: Fatima Dunn, Julian Sartorius, Laszlo Ovlinsky
Producers: Simon Hesse, Lorenz Merz
Cast: Pablo Caprez, Ella Rumpf, Art Bllaca, Luna Wedler, Tonatiuh Radzi, Lolita Chammah, Angelique La Douce
Lebanon, France, Germany, Qatar, 2021, 101 min
Switzerland, 2021, 101 min.