Review

'Hermia & Helena,' 'Rat Film' among the highlights of Locarno in Los Angeles

Every August, a few weeks before the Venice and Toronto film festivals roll out their red carpets and awards contenders, audiences descend on the Swiss town of Locarno for an 11-day cinematic banquet that has become prized for its formal innovation, its aesthetic adventurousness and its appeal to hard-core cinephiles.

Often resistant to narrative convention or easy genre classification, these are movies that, for the most part, rarely travel to Los Angeles art-house venues — a reality that speaks to the languishing state of independent and foreign-language film distribution in the U.S., but also to a neglected L.A. film culture that often feels more hindered than helped by its proximity to Hollywood.

Locarno in Los Angeles, an adventurous sampler of films from the 2016 edition of the festival, represents a hopeful reversal of this trend. Curated by the L.A.-based critics Jordan Cronk and Robert Koehler, and presented at the Downtown Independent, this weekend-long program of 10 features and five shorts offers a jolting antidote to the mid-spring blockbuster blues, as well as a welcome reminder that cinema isn’t just a global medium; at times, it can be downright otherworldly.

The program gets off to a pleasing start on Friday night with “Hermia & Helena,” the latest Shakespearean riff from the New York-based Argentine director Matías Piñeiro. Just as his earlier works “The Princess of France” and “Viola” respectively riffed on “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and “Twelfth Night,” the new movie hinges loosely on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which Camila (Agustina Muñoz), a Buenos Aires theater director who has recently relocated to the Big Apple, is attempting to translate into Spanish.

The play’s intricate roundelay of romantic complications and mistaken identities is loosely reproduced in Piñeiro’s clever shuffling of characters, time frames and locations. “Hermia & Helena” toggles restlessly between New York and Buenos Aires, gives Camila an alter ego in the form of another young woman, Carmen (María Villar), and at times even superimposes two establishing shots in the same frame — a ghostly, dissolve-like effect that underscores the poignant sense of homesickness at the heart of the story.

One of the program’s most accessible titles is the centerpiece selection, “Rat Film,” Theo Anthony’s brilliant, uncategorizable documentary on the notoriously large rodent population in his native Baltimore. The human implications of this phenomenon, especially as regards the city’s long history of racial segregation and substandard living conditions for African Americans, are among the many threads freely at play in this mind-expanding experiment, which leaves you regarding both species in a slightly different light.

Not quite as brisk or playful is the festival’s Sunday closing-night selection, “Scarred Hearts,” a slow-burning 1930s-set hospital drama that finds the Romanian writer-director Radu Jude veering away from the epic Western thrills of his 2016 feature, “Aferim!” If relentless action is more your speed, you might consider subjecting yourself to Tetsuya Mariko’s brutal, unsparing anti-thriller “Distraction Babies,” about a young Japanese sociopath (Yuya Yagira) who likes nothing more than pummeling random strangers and getting pummeled himself in return.

Eduardo Williams’ “The Human Surge” is a mysterious and poetic triptych that wanders from Argentina to Mozambique to the Philippines, finding a wondrously imaginative transition each time. In each new environment the film alights on a different group of young people, observing their comings, goings and random hangouts with an eye that feels at once alert and oddly dispassionate. Your attention may flag at times — even the movie’s seems to — but the roving, unimpeded movement of the camera keeps you watching.

By contrast, the camera stays mostly still in “All the Cities of the North,” a quietly immersive debut feature from Yugoslavian director Dane Komljen, which follows two men who have set up camp in an abandoned, dilapidated hotel complex somewhere in southern Montenegro. With its expressive use of landscapes (both natural and man-made) and its relaxed, middle-of-nowhere intimacy, this is a beautifully unhurried picture that, like many of the best offerings at Locarno in Los Angeles, seems less interested in telling you a simple story than in recalibrating your internal rhythms. You should let it.

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Locarno in Los Angeles Film Festival

Where: Downtown Independent, 251 S. Main St., Los Angeles

When: Friday through Sunday, Tuesday

Tickets: Individual screenings $12; passes, $45-$90

Info: www.locarnoinlosangeles.com

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@JustinCChang

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