The Locarno Film Festival, now in its 58th year, is an undeniably attractive festival. Attractive because of its location – on the shores of Lake Maggiore in Italian-speaking Switzerland, complete with bronzed tourists, palm trees and sunshine. Attractive too because this a small town with a resident population of only 20,000, and one that embraces the festival with huge enthusiasm and pride. Film venues are spread all over town with the famous Piazza Grande at its heart, where every night for the 10 nights of the festival, more than 7000 people take their seats in front of one of the world’s largest outdoor screens – an impressive 26 m x 14 m. As a complement to the festival and now seemingly established after four years (much to the annoyance of local restaurants) the enormous sunken roundabout in the centre of the city functions as a global village, with clothing, ethnic knick-knacks, bars, food stalls serving Thai, Indian, Middle Eastern and Mexican food. A clean Camden in the sun and without the drunks. Packed night after night it only adds to the very convivial and global feel of this festival.

Since 2002, when the FIAPF promoted Locarno to the ‘A’ category, the festival can claim to be the fourth most important in Europe, though without the hype and the stars/starlets that Cannes and Venice attract. Though the festival still actively promotes and celebrates the young, the rising and the ‘new’ ( at least outside their country of origin), the opening up of its International Competition to those directors with more than two features behind them has, over the last few years, given Locarno both wider audience appeal and commercial appeal.

This year’s Golden Leopard Award was testimony to this, being awarded to Rodrigo Garcia’s Nine Lives (2004), far and away the strongest film in the festival’s International Competition. Garcia, son of author Gabriel Garcia Marquez and whose previous films include Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her and Ten Tiny Love Stories, is clearly at home writing women and examining the fears and neuroses of familial and romantic relationships. Nine Lives revolves around a collection of disparate women whose lives intertwine, and who find themselves at turning points in their lives. With nine episodic shots, each character reappears in a secondary role throughout the film. In the hands of a less sensitive writer/director the film, could have lacked continuity and wandered into the realms of the voyeuristic, but Garcia has produced a very moving film, eliciting superb performances from the strongest cast seen in this festival: Glenn Close; Sissy Spacek; Holly Hunter; Kathy Baker and Robin Wright Penn. Unsurprisingly the actresses also picked up a collective Best Actress Leopard.

The Special Jury Prize awarded to a film that ”best conveys the spirit of communications between people and cultures” was picked up by the French/Japanese Un Couple Parfait (2005) directed by Nobuhiro Suwa. The film tells the story of a couple’s disintegrating marriage, though having embarrassed their friends by lightly announcing their divorce at the dinner table, just why divorce is imminent is never clearly established. In fact, by the end of the film, and after husband (Bruno Todeschini) and wife (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) have had some tentative but tame extra-marital encounters and after a lot of bickering punctuated by very long (and gloomy) periods of silence, it appears that there may be life in the old-dog marriage after all. Maybe. Suwa’s film examines what keeps a couple together, and at the same, what splits them up, though whether by accident or design few conclusions are reached.

The Silver Leopard went to Fratricide (2005) by German-based Turkish director Yilmaz Arslan. Based very much on his own experiences of immigration as a child, Arslan tells the story of two Kurdish brothers whose lives in the promised land of Germany, rapidly turns sour, spiralling into violence and loss of innocence. The bloody violence didn’t sit too well at Locarno, but this a very moving film which examines the complexity of immigration and combines fine performances from its amateur cast ( the young Xevat Gectan received a special mention for his outstanding performance), and strong visuals, courtesy of Jean-Francois Hensgens. Other International Competition prizes went to Florian Hoffmeister’s 3 Grad Kaelter (3 Degrees Colder) (2005) and Ma Hameh Khoubim– We Are All Fine (2005) by Iranian director Bizhan Mirbaqueri.

Leopards of Honour were awarded to Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami and Terry Gilliam, while Susan Sarandon, John Malkovich (both in residence for an acting masterclass) and Italian director of photography, Vittorio Storaro were each awarded an Excellence Award. British producer Jeremy Thomas also picked up an award.

Wim Wenders was also in town, to pick up his Leopard of Honour (the awards certainly flow at Locarno), and for the screening in Piazza Grande of Don’t Come Knocking (2005), written by and starring Sam Shepard, supported by Jessica Lange and Tim Roth. Though pleasantly watchable and with some fine Hopperesque visuals, the film felt patchy and disjointed, with too many undeveloped characters and a decidedly unsatisfying conclusion.

Mention must be made of the Quay brothers’ gothic fantasy Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005), which deserved its special mention for its ‘visionary atmosphere’, and the excellent Mirrormask (2004). Written by Neil Gaiman and directed by Dave McKean, the film combines digital animation with live action, and tells the story of a young Brighton girl –played convincingly by Stephanie Leonidas – who, on the night her mother is taken to hospital after Leonidas wishes her dead, enters a bizarre, twisted and at times terrifying internal world, a world that embodies her guilt and adolescent emotional turmoil. Good stuff indeed, clearly appealing to adults and the young alike – the Junior Jury at Locarno gave it a thumbs up and awarded it a special mention.

Locarno has a good number of sidebars and events, both Swiss and international, including one it is particularly proud of: the Human Rights Program. Though it failed to pick up a prize, Petr Lom’s Bride Kidnapping in Kygyzstan (2004) was a jaw-dropper, managing to effortlessly combine doses of horror, humour and sympathy, and Takeharu Watai’s Little Birds (2005), which portrays the war in Iraq from the perspective of ordinary Iraqi citizens was well deserving of its Human Rights Award.

The Orson Welles retrospective was thoroughly enjoyable, and the nightly screenings in the piazza are mostly very atmospheric. The offerings this year however were decidedly mixed – a few more current films of quality would have been welcomed. And festival organisers take note: selling hundreds more tickets than there are seats is hardly fair. This year, arriving one and a half hours before a screening was not enough to guarantee a seat, and the infernal habit of many festival goers of bagging seats by leaving possessions – including a couple of pairs of mangy trainers – is a habit that is testing the patience of the ever-increasing audience. Angry exchanges that just stopped short of scuffles were a constant theme this year, as were disappointed and seatless ticket holders leaving the piazza before the film began.

With a new director at its helm – Frederic Maire, co-founder of the now pan -European children’s film club the ‘Magic Lantern’ – its development over the next three years will be interesting. This year’s competition offerings – with only one US entry ({/trong}Nine Lives, which picked up the big prize) – lacked the quality that recent festivals have seen. With late cancellations and a reluctance on the part of bigger US studios to premiere here this year (citing fears of piracy), Maire inherits a challenge. When all is said and done however, it’s an exciting challenge with huge potential, and the Locarno Film Festival can be warmly recommended.