From the Grand Hotel to the Piazza Grande

The Locarno Film Festival’s Quest for Legitimacy (1946-1977)


  • Cyril Cordoba University of Fribourg and UniDistance (Switzerland)



Switzerland, Film festival, Economy, Industry, Tourism, Cinema, Auteur cinema, Lobbying, Politics, Anticommunism, Cinephilia


The Locarno Film Festival is one of the oldest film festivals in the world. Founded in 1946, it is today widely recognized as an international hub for emerging cinema. However, what remains little known is that it was originally conceived as a touristic attraction managed by a few film professionals, and thus had to fight hard to impose its artistic and cultural ambitions over the interests of the tourism and film industries. This article shows that, considering that Locarno was neither created nor supported by political authorities or cultural institutions, its evolution heavily depended on the economic interests of a tourist organization and professional associations of film producers, distributors, and cinema operators. Looking beyond the official narrative publicized in commemorative books depicting the festival as a privileged place for avant-garde cinema since its early years, the article demonstrates that Locarno’s specialization in new cinema was decided in a context of commercial pressures and increasing competition between film festivals. Focusing on the period during which it evolved from a small-scale, provincial celebration to an international platform for art house cinema, it argues that the so-called cinephile editions of 1966–70—when the directors of the event decided to completely distance themselves from the tourist imperatives and commercial function of the festival—must be understood as a radical and short-lived experience in the history of Locarno, rather than a representative trend.

Author Biography

Cyril Cordoba, University of Fribourg and UniDistance (Switzerland)

Cyril Cordoba is a historian (PhD) working on Switzerland’s political and cultural exchanges with communist regimes and previously called Third World countries during the Cold War, as well as the links between cinema and politics. His first book about Swiss-Chinese relationships (1949– 89) was published in 2020 (Alphil) and was translated into English by Routledge in 2022. He has contributed to Europe and China in the Cold War (2019) and Transnational History of Switzerland(2020) and coedited a special issue of the historical journal Traverse about Switzerland and East Asia (2020). Initiated in 2021, his postdoctoral project investigates the political history of the Locarno International Film Festival (1946–81). He is currently teaching at the University of Fribourg and UniDistance (Switzerland).




How to Cite

Cordoba, Cyril. 2023. “From the Grand Hotel to the Piazza Grande: The Locarno Film Festival’s Quest for Legitimacy (1946-1977)”. Journal of Festive Studies 4 (1):23-46.