The perfect setting for a British success story

This year at the Locarno film festival in Italy, short films from the UK get the full monty.
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THE LOCARNO international film festival resumed its affair with British cinema this year - it was here that Britain's most commercially successful film, The Full Monty, received its European premiere. Last month the spotlight once again fell on British efforts and, in particular, the short film.

Short film-making with a distinctive regional flavour seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance in the UK and shorts from Scotland and England have won the prestigious short film prize at Cannes over the last few years.

Locarno itself, nestling on the shores of Lake Maggiore, provides a splendid setting. Its annual film shindig, now celebrating its 51st birthday, has always been in danger of being overshadowed by its glitzier Italian relation, the Venice Film Festival (held this month), but it has flourished since its relatively modest beginnings.

By the end of the 1980s, the open-air cinema in the Piazza Grande regularly pulled in audiences of 10,000 and last year 170,000 turned up to catch Locarno's mix of the latest mainstream Hollywood films and low-budget indies. It nevertheless remains one of the less unwieldy international film festivals.

As a student, Full Monty's director, Peter Cattaneo, premiered a short here which eventually went on to receive an Academy Award, and this year organisers made a special feature of the latest crop of British shorts. Their instinct proved right and it was heartening indeed to see a near full house for the first programme highlighting the 30 British short films in competition.

The programme ranged in subject matter from a portrait of a dysfunctional working class family (A Fly Went By) to a bizarre and seemingly endless tube journey with a collection of passengers from hell (Tales from the Underground). Among the most impressive films - Leopard of Tomorrow was the eventual prize winner - was John McKay's funny and poetic 13-minute Doom and Gloom, in which a miserably cold and windy Scottish island is transformed by a new trainee minister whose prayers are unorthodox, to say the least. Malcolm Venville's 11-minute Silent Film caught the eye too. The morning of her first baby's hearing test, a young deaf woman remembers how she defied her parents' wishes five years previously. Established directors as Peter Greenaway, Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh also turned in short films.

Britain was also represented in the festival by three main features, one of which, Roger Michell's Titanic Town, took the Ecumenical Prize. Heading a strong cast, Julie Walters gives a feisty performance in this adaptation of Mary Costello's autobiographical novel about a Belfast housewife battling against both the IRA and the British Army.

Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe continued its run of appearances at this year's festivals, carrying off the Audience award in the process, and Locarno also provided an early outing for Prometheus, a film adaptation of Tony Harrison's interpretation of Aeschylus's drama.

Elsewhere, the festival proper opened with a commercial crowd-puller - the European premiere of Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft's Mulan, the latest from Disney, which was screened on a baking hot evening under the stars in the Piazza Grande. The studio's latest full-length animated feature deals, a little heavy-handedly, with an ancient Chinese legend, in which a young woman, the eponymous Mulan, disguises herself as a man and secretly takes her father's place in the Imperial army to defend the kingdom.

Animation appeared to have caught the imagination of the festival organisers who awarded Joe Dante an Honorary Leopard and gave his his latest film, Small Soldiers (a combination of live action and CGI), its European premiere. As for the serious gongs, the Iranian Dance of Dust collected the Silver Leopard, and Mr Zhaio, a Japanese film, was awarded the Gold Leopard.