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A Festival for the Stars of Today and Tomorrow

Let’s climb into this time machine and turn the dial back to August 6th 1971. Back to the day of an exciting première. The first-ever Piazza Grande screening at the Locarno Film Festival. Ticino-based architect Livio Vacchini came up with the idea to transform the entire piazza into a open-air cinema. Gazing out onto the square in the centre of the city from his office window, he realised that it would be a fantastic location for the festival.

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And the request from Raimondo Rezzonico, the Festival President at the time, to spice up the festival for its 25th anniversary was taken care of in style. On that evening, ‘Take the Money and Run’, a comedy directed by and starring Woody Allen, was shown on the biggest screen in Europe, which measured in at 22 x 10 metres. Word of the magical atmosphere at the film evening soon spread and demand had far outweighed the capacity of 500 seats at the Piazza Grande by the second night. The festival committee grabbed as many chairs as they could find from the local schools and teaching training college.

People still get just as excited about watching a film screening at the piazza to this day. In fact, the iconic location has been a highlight of the Locarno Film Festival for years and years. Unfortunately, the screening was cancelled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. So you can imagine the reaction when it was announced that the event could return to its usual central spot in August. “Last summer the Piazza Grande was a sorry sight, with no chairs, no people, no thrilling atmosphere in the evening between filmmakers and personalities on stage and the audience,” recalls Festival President Marco Solari. Luckily, there are more happy moments than not-so-happy ones in the history of the Locarno Film Festival.

“Whatever you catch on camera is yours to keep. Even if you have to look a bit like a thief in the process.”

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Moments like the one in 1997 when Roberto Begnini couldn’t make it to the screening of his film ‘La Vita è Bella’ in Ticino and decided to speak to the audience at the piazza on the phone instead, making the witty remark that he had never talked on the phone with 10,000 people before.

It would be impossible to list all the stars that have made an appearance in Locarno. Stars like Marlene Dietrich who came to Lake Maggiore in 1960 after being invited by Josef von Sternberg, the man who discovered her. The Swiss media was so excited about the biggest acting star to come out of Germany showing up that the television broadcaster waited for her at the border. “Whatever you catch on camera is yours to keep. Even if you have to look a bit like a thief in the process,” said the guilty reporter responsible for the scenes filmed on August 3 1960. He even followed the famous festival guest on her shopping trip in Ascona. Nevertheless, Marlene Dietrich appeared to be in high spirits on the festival stage and mesmerised the audience in a shimmering silver dress and white elbow-length gloves. With a real eye for talent, the festival committee managed to invite plenty of actors to Ticino before their Hollywood careers really kicked off. Penelope Cruz appeared at the Piazza Grande at the tender age of 19 in 1993. Although she would later go on to win an Oscar, back then she was free to walk around the city without really being recognised.

The glitz and glamour of the Locarno Film Festival is based on a long tradition. And yet there is also a focus on the future and support for the next generation of talent. The Locarno Academy gives attendees the chance to meet and chat to major players in contemporary cinema, be published in leading international film review magazines and learn more about programming and distributing films from highly regarded industry experts. Locarno Film Festival BaseCamp brings together 150 talented youngsters from the top academies for ten days of discussion, discovery and creative pursuits.

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Words Alex Kühn

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