Locarno’s Piazza Grande is encircled by bars. You can’t walk more than ten meters in any direction without being entreated to sit down for a drink. It’s doubtful that many of the several thousand people who crowded the Piazza Grande for an open-air evening screening of My Internship in Canada knew a lot about French-Canadian politics. As a result, the intricacies of Philippe Falardeau’s comedy about an independent member of Parliament in a rural Quebec region who ends up in a position of national prominence may have escaped them. But, lubricated in equal measures by booze and cinephilia, the audiences at the Locarno International Film Festival are game for anything. Nestled snugly into the mountains near the Italian-Swiss border – and positioned on the calendar as the unofficial kick-off for fall film festival season – Locarno manages the tricky feat of catering to a close-knit local community while offering a peerlessly cosmopolitan programme of work from around the world.

Lubricated in equal measures by booze and cinephilia, the audiences at Locarno are game for anything

This year, Locarno seemed to have an especially vital Canadian presence, with new films premiering internationally in advance of their unveiling at the Toronto International Film Festival next month. My Internship in Canada is the most accessible of these, and in a conversation on the eve of its first screening, Falardeau said he’s as curious how an English-Canadian audience will react to its regionally specific jokes as a Swiss one. With a federal election looming, My Internship in Canada could be received in Toronto as a movie-of-the-moment, and the fact that it features among its cast of characters a fairly obvious Stephen Harper manqué – a gently manipulative figure referred to by one character as a “fascist” – could be a flashpoint for controversy. But the achievement of Falardeau’s film, which is filled with references to Canadian history and culture (including a funny paraphrase of Pierre Trudeau’s most famous moment), is to suggest that the underlying structure of Canadian politics – the tension between the needs of individual and those of the group – are pretty much universal.

Two other Canadian features by young directors in Locarno will arrive at TIFF with good buzz. The first reviews were excellent for Sarajevo-born Igor Drljača’s The Waiting Room, a troubling, narratively sophisticated character study of a Yugoslavian actor  (the excellent Jasmin Geljo) trying to continue his career in Toronto while finding himself drawn back – in body and mind – to his homeland. The film’s spare, elliptical vibe and air of urban alienation evokes the early work of Atom Egoyan, but Drajca’s work is not derivative; as in his first feature, Krivina (which showed at TIFF in 2011), he’s developing a style that’s mysterious but not withholding, and he saves his best, most shivery twist for last.

There are emotions percolating under the surface of The Waiting Room, but in Anne Emond’s Our Loved Ones, they burst through from almost the very first frame. A talented short filmmaker whose feature debut Nuit # 1 (2011) won a Jutra Award for best first film, Emond is interested in heightened states of feeling, and this new film – which stars Maxim Gaudette as a young father raising a family on the shores of the Lower St. Lawrence over the course of two decades– is suffused with a bruising melancholy. What begins as a fairly traditional drama shifts, gradually and powerfully, into a study of depression that’s at once admirably unsentimental and essentially empathetic. Emond’s directing is more self-effacing here than in the showier Nuit #1, and she uses pop music brilliantly – cuts by Blind Melon and Elliott Smith are used as more than mere period signifiers.

Urs Flueeler/Keystone

Of course, many of the worthiest titles at Locarno were not Canadian, although some of them are also slated to be at TIFF, including Korean master Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, which offers two contrasting yet complimentary variations on a Meet Cute between a travelling film director and a young painter. And then there were films that have not been announced for TIFF but looked to the journalists on the ground like good bets, including veteran auteur Chantal Akerman’s plangent, persona, shot-on-video documentary No Home Movie (a portrait of the director’s elderly mother) and Greek New Wave figurehead Athina Rachel Tsangari’s wry Chevalier, about a bizarre competition hatched by a group of men on a yachting voyage. As in her previous, award-winning Attenberg, Tsangari takes an almost anthropological approach to human behaviour, observing the relentless one-upsmanship of her characters with a Bunuelian ambivalence. This claustrophobic, not so subtly class-comedy film could be a Greek remake of The Exterminating Angel.

On my last night at the festival, I overheard a group of locals playing a version of the film’s central “game” on a patio near the piazza. However tempting it is to read Chevalier as an oblique allegory of the Greek financial crisis, its humorous perspective on masculine rituals obviously connects beyond specific cultural references. In this regard, it may be the exemplary film of this year’s festival: it’s an art film that’s best taken apart in the bar.