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Locarno, the filmgoer's feast

Locarno, hosting its 56th annual international film festival from August 6-16, joins the big league of Cannes, Venice and Berlin. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN takes us on a tour of the picturesque spots in this enchanting Swiss town.

THE GOLDEN Leopard with the swinging tail looms benevolently over summer festivities in Locarno, Switzerland, which joins the big league (Cannes, Venice, Berlin) with its 56th annual international film festival, in August 2003.

Collegiata di S. Vittore... aesthetic niches aplenty.

The Pardo festival (August 6-16) goes all out to encourage the newcomer, and daring experiments. Adventurous artistic director, Irene Bignardi, promotes cinema's links with global events, and the celebration of literature as a twin art. Last year saw sessions with writers such as Arnold Wesker, Anita Desai and Arundhati Roy. `An Afghan Day' had discussions and screenings of archival footage salvaged from that ravaged nation.

What makes Locarno stand out is the informal bonhomie and sunlit mood. Piazza or foyer, you make friends from nations in Europe, and across the globe, find venturesome filmgoers ready to taste different kinds of cinema.

Mariateresa Oldani and Verena Anliker — both dressed in salwar kameez from the Sitaara boutique in Thun, Switzerland — are at "Daasi" and "Umrao Jaan," while Fritz Hopf, Austria, revels in the world premieres along with 7,000 viewers before the giant screen at the Piazza Grande, a unique, unforgettable experience.

If the compact Kursaal theatre breathes the individualistic fastidiousness of press shows, Piazza Grande celebrates cinema as a joyous community rite. Don't forget, it was here that "Lagaan" was voted Best Film (Prix du Public, 2001) by audiences dancing wildly to every song in the film. Locarno's beauty is drawn from Lake Maggiore, aquamarine under the golden sun, ringed by purple peaks trailing cloud ribbons and mist scarfs. Blue green islands preen themselves in the shifting lights. Bordering the shore are magnolias heady with creamy flowers. Few roads are open to cars, so you walk, cycle, or take the bus and the mini train.

If you are tired of films, try water sport in Locarno itself, or in neighbouring Ascona, Porto Ronco, Muralto, Brissago... You may want to take off to nearby Milan, Italy, and lose yourself before the splendour of Da Vinci's `The Last Supper,' brilliantly restored after years of labour.

Locarnians will bridle if you mistake them for Italians, they are proud of being Swiss. But there is little of clockwork Switzerland here. Cobbled streets overhung with balconies, paths hidden by flowery creepers, fruit stalls with giant cherries and honeyed figs, and all belong to warmer climes.

Pretty design borders on old buildings, as also Biblical and classical murals looking down from the walls make delightful surprises. A local dentist's visiting card reproduces on the reverse side, one such mural from his family home.

In the Middle Ages, the Ticino zone to which Locarno belongs, was ruled by the Milanese dukes of Visconti and Sforza. When it joined the Swiss Confederation, a new eclectic policy was drawn up to prevent ethnic discrepancies in the region, which differed from the other Cantons in language and culture.

Ticino continued to be tossed between Austria and France, facing political unrest in the 19th, and uprisings in the 20th centuries. It sheltered revolutionaries like Giuseppe Mazzini, welcomed political exiles, particularly artists, poets and musicians fleeing from Nazi-Fascist repression. The World wars brought celebrity residents such as Charlie Chaplin to its remote mountain estates.

Sanctuary of the Madonna del Sasso ... its steep steps end on the heights of peace.

In contrast to the cinema mania of the festival, the churches breathe tranquillity. At San Francesco, founded by St. Anthony of Padua, (service in German) you are told to note the facade stones from the demolished ducal castle of Visconti, and those bearing the coat-of-arms of the town guilds — of the noble (eagle), middle (ox) and peasant (lamb) classes.

The huge Moses and David rivet you in St. Anthony's Parish church. St. Mary-in-the-Wood has frescos from 1361. When you come down from the Palavideo Sony theatre after "Let's Talk" by the Indian debutant Ram Madhvani, a horse rider beckons from the church frieze, and you join the slim Sabbath congregation chanting Ave Marias at the lovely Collegiata San Vittore.

A multilingual ecumenical service at the Chiesa Nuova (new church) is conducted specially for the Pardo festival. You ask a local for directions and she not only takes you there but discloses that she has spent years in Madras, when her brother served as a doctor in Hassan, Karnataka.

A major pleasure is to sit on the seats and platforms by the lake, or eat by the little tables spilling over from restaurants into the streets. In the piazza you come across a quintet of settlers from south India, uninterested in the film festival, but oh-so-happy with your brown face and `masala' accent. They are ready to invite you home for meen curry and choru, sambar and thoran. You see a few other Indians too, some with Swiss wives, prams and toddlers in tow. The older children are in India, ``Locarno has no colleges, no English education'' they tell you.

A long-time Locarno resident, Pious Chirayath, takes you on a tour in and around Locarno. That is how you find yourself driving on the winding, vernal road up the perfectly named Mountain of Peace. He halts at different spots for calendar picture views. No camera can quite capture the feel of the crisp light and air, so you file the scenes away in your mind.

Up under the green shadows you glimpse mossy walls. A lonesome church in the wilderness reverberates with the music of the spheres, and the song of a mighty angel... You walk up the worn steps and sit in the pew, flooded by the swelling organ above. You learn later that the singer is a famous Italian star who comes to practice in this remote spot. He smiles at your rapturous thanks. You don't catch his name, but no matter, anonymity has mystique.

In the grotto beside the church, the Virgin sits between the flowers, facing a small hole with a chained cup beside it. The water is crystal clear, ice cold, and is believed to heal body and mind. The legend is of goatherds who found a spring that averted some great disaster in the dim past.

After that reposeful interlude, lake resort Ascona is an anticlimax, overflowing with German tourists determined not to waste a single moment of sunshine. The entire scene seems to be located within a five-star hotel. You return through roads cutting into endless orchards, apple branches weighed down by fruit. Not a single soul in sight but stern Pious warns, ``No, you can't pick any.''

No visit to Locarno is complete without trudging up the steep steps to the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Sasso, a pilgrimage literally ending on the heights of peace.

However, for a stupendous overview of the region, you must zoom vertically up to Cardada and Cimetta, in a teardrop-shaped cable car of transparent glass. There you can watch the sun playing hide and seek with five sprawling mountain ranges circling the dreaming lake and valley. There are walkways and gliding facilities in summer, skiing in winter, and `ristorantes' which can come up with succulent vegetarian cuisine at need. (As at the Swiss Minister's party for Indians, where fine-voiced Nandita Das thanked the hosts with an old film song). But who knows, another time, another festival, and you may have Vegan Richard Gere to share it with!

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