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LOCARNO, Switzerland The rains poured down, but the movies bloomed at the 54th Locarno Intl. Film Festival, which under new director Irene Bignardi showed every sign of renewal after several years in the doldrums.

As the fest (Aug. 2-12) entered its final few days last week, the 19-pic competition alone had screened at least seven world preems of note, with three titles still to unspool. And the out-of-competition program, held in the Swiss-Italian town's cobbled Piazza Grande, was being hailed as the most even and focused in years.

Despite losing two titles at the last moment to Venice (a recurring and inevitable problem for Locarno), Bignardi reckoned she'd still managed to put her stamp on the competition, balancing the fest's desire to seek out challenging new talent with a need for pics that are emotionally accessible.

Under the final few years of fest topper Marco Muller, the competition had calcified into a collection of hard-core art movies with almost no commercial future.

Clearly leading this year's pack is Anne Fountaine's French drama, "How I Killed My Father," a beautifully written study of hidden tensions in a bourgeois family, with a first-rate cast led by veteran Michel Bouquet.

Four other titles also combined intelligence with accessibility, not least the ironic British relationship drama "The Lawless Heart," by second-time helmers Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger. Pic is a rarity in current Brit cinema for its well-worked script and subtle integration of backstory.

Post-baby blues

Former documaker Dominique Cabrera delivered her best feature to date, black comedy "The Milk of Human Kindness," with a knockout cast including singer Patrick Bruel, Sergi Lopez and Dominique Blanc as residents of a French mountain town thrown for a loop by a woman's bout of post-partum depression.

Iranian helmer Abolfazl Jalili ("Dance of Dust") contribbed a visually poetic portrait of Afghan border tensions in "Delbaran." And from China, 31-year-old first-timer Emily Tang married realism with emotion in "Conjugation," an on-the-nose study of a young couple during the post-Tiananmen winter of 1990.

By excluding competition titles from the Piazza Grande, Bignardi gave the open-air screenings a clearer identity, with tributes, Hollywood crowdpleasers and visual extravaganzas.

Among world preems, Peter Bogdanovich's period Hollywood tale "The Cat's Meow" received a largely favorable reception, Hollywood cricket epic "Lagaan" proved a major hit and German feel-good comedy "Mostly Martha" went down smoothly.

"Planet of the Apes" had yet to unspool, but it drew chortles at its press screening.

Reflecting on her first year as fest director, Bignardi, a veteran film critic at Italian daily La Repubblica, told Variety the job had been harder than expected, partly due to Venice's decision to hold a second competitive section this year devoted to newer talent.

Next year, Bignardi says, she may tweak the fest's Filmmakers of the Present sidebar, a popular but unfocused grab bag of film and video. And though the fest's budget has almost doubled, Bignardi confirms the town's new hardtop is still several years in the future.

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Title Annotation:director Irene Bignardi; Locarno Intl. Film Festival - director Irene Bignardi
Comment:TOPPER RENEWS LOCARNO.(Locarno Intl. Film Festival - director Irene Bignardi)(director Irene Bignardi)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EXSI
Date:Aug 13, 2001
Next Article:`Amelie' goes to Montreal.

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