“Promised Land” by Ticino director Michael Beltrami is one of 18 works – and the only Swiss film – competing in the international competition at the Locarno film festival.
The film, which the director describes as “half road movie, half modern western”, treads the thin line between what is real and imagined.
It tells the story of Ethan Woodward, a former child star, who has failed to make it big as an adult.
Woodward spends his days driving around Los Angeles in a car covered with pictures of himself, trying to regain his lost fame.
A producer friend then offers him the chance to drive through California wilderness to shoot on-the-road stories about real people. He accepts, and embarks on a project which changes his life.
Beltrami says that Woodward is based on a real character that exists in Los Angeles, a failed actor called Dennis Woodruff.
“I was fascinated by his character because he is the incarnation of someone who is constantly looking for his dream to happen. He’s someone who lives this confusion between making films, being an actor and wanting to be famous,” Beltrami told swissinfo.
Beltrami says that what was interesting for him was that there was a human being behind this façade.
But he adds that his anti-hero, Ethan Woodward, is different from his real-life counterpart because he has the capacity to change.
“In the beginning he was someone who wanted always to be the centre of attention, but towards the end of the story he becomes someone who takes a step back… so he becomes almost like a spectator,” said Beltrami.
The director, who studied film in Los Angeles, says he wanted to show that it is possible to get away from the “sick dreams” which affect a lot of people in the movie business.
Beltrami says he also wanted to consider the role of the “loser” in US society.
Woodward doesn’t fit in and nor do many of the people he interviews on his road trip, such as the man who waits on a deserted road for his daily post delivery.
But Woodward’s story changes when he meets a singer, Vicky Dalton - played by real-life singer Ruth Gerson. Dalton is looking for her daughter, Mary Jane, who mysteriously disappeared ten years earlier.
Woodward starts his own personal investigation into the matter, and in the process learns a lot about himself.
Beltrami says that, although he didn’t realise it until he started to edit, the theme of lost childhood is central to the film - from the “lost” child actor to the real-life lost child.
“In a way it’s a comparison between something that could be in your mind and something which is very true,” he said.
This thin line between reality and imagination is underlined by the filming technique, which uses a mix of handheld camera, old 35 millimetre films and camera work.
Beltrami’s background as a documentary maker is apparent in many of the film’s “real life” style vignettes.
He says “Promised Land” can be described as a road movie and a western, as it uses lots of places seen in these types of films. But essentially it is about the imaginary – the “promised land”.
“The promised land is the land where, in your mind, you can reach what you would like to reach. Of course, it’s not always possible, and that’s why it’s an imaginary world,” he told swissinfo.
The film is Beltrami’s first professional feature. His other work, “Bella?” was made while he was still a film student and since then he has concentrated mainly on documentaries. He has also worked at the Locarno film festival as director of the “Leopards of Tomorrow” section.
Beltrami says he is pleased that the film has largely had a good reception, although some critics have questioned whether it is truly Swiss as it is set in the US.
But Beltrami’s view, this is not important.
“A ‘Swiss film’ is probably a film that is made by someone with a Swiss passport [and] which has probably been financed by Swiss money. But when the film is up on the screen then it’s a film, period,” he said.
swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Locarno
Michael Beltrami was born in Germany but was brought up in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland.
“Promised Land” is a Swiss-Italian co-production, but it was mainly financed by the Swiss.
The film is set in Los Angeles and in the surrounding California wilderness.