Berlinale Roundup

The Berlinale has had a quiet renaissance of sorts in the past few years. Often criticized for a relatively middling selection, which despite always maintaining a certain level, used to pale in comparison to Cannes or Venice, the Berlinale has presented a notable number of worthy titles including A Separation, Piña, The Turin Horse, Tabu, Gloria, The Grandmaster, Life of Riley and The Grand Budapest Hotel in its recent editions. The 65th festival, which has just wrapped up over the weekend, continued this positive trend and provided the enthusiastic Berlin crowd and the busy industry professionals with an extremely strong roster of films. There were a bunch of major directors presenting world premieres (Herzog, Malick, Wenders); therefore the festival did look promising even before it began. Yet the real gems ended up carrying the signatures of younger, perhaps lesser-known directors.

Its emphasis on emerging talents and the riskier nature of its selections usually distinguish Berlinale from the other major European festivals and this year was no exception. With two debut films, three films directed by women, and a documentary in the competition, the lineup was particularly adventurous. After all is said and done, one can easily note that festival director Dieter Kosslick’s gamble paid handsome dividends. The big winner was Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, a smart and playful film which manages to paint a comprehensive portrait of modern Iran despite obvious constraints. Panahi’s third film under his much-criticized ban from filmmaking by the Iranian authorities, Taxi is also his most optimistic and enjoyable one yet. Neither the blurring of the line between reality and fiction, nor the clearly articulated points regarding the lack of freedom of expression in Iran can be considered surprising or original. I don’t think every vignette in this episodic film works equally well, either (the section with the pirate DVD seller and the appearance of Panahi’s niece are stronger than the rest while Panahi’s mysterious visit to an old neighbor doesn’t add much). But despite these minor issues, the film is so cleverly constructed and skillfully executed that it is difficult not to be impressed. The main issue that is discussed in multiple vignettes is the notion of ‘crime’ as something born out of necessity and this makes Taxi an exceptionally witty and self-reflexive work, considering its very existence is a ‘crime’ Panahi has committed out of his need to make films.

Jury president Darren Aronofsky made it clear that the entire jury was very impressed by the selection. A contender that could easily have walked away with the Bear in a different year, Pablo Larrain’s disturbing and powerful The Club, won the Jury Grand Prix, and in an extension of Aronofsky’s sentiments about the overall quality, was described as a future classic by former Golden Bear winner Claudia Llosa (returning as a jury member this year). The Club begins enigmatically in a dark corner of Chile and gradually evolves into an effective tale on the often-veiled crimes of the Church. Larrain’s screenplay deals with a group of priests who are living in forced exile under the supervision of a former nun. Punished for a variety of reasons including child abuse and political crimes, the priests follow a strict daily routine and spend most of their time taking care of a dog, which competes in a series of dog races. This bizarre yet seemingly peaceful existence is interrupted with the arrival of a new priest. While the story itself is indeed controversial, Larrain manages to stay away from cheap exploitation without diminishing the impact of his angry and courageous film. He introduces all the major characters through a series of interview sequences, gives very detailed accounts of their crimes, and reaches a tense climax followed by a suitably dark finale. It is also refreshing to see Larrain move away from dramas rooted in specific historical contexts (particularly the Pinochet dictatorship) and make his strongest film yet with a story that goes beyond regional or temporal limits.

The second Chilean film (technically a majority French production) was Patricio Guzmán’s exquisite follow-up to Nostalgia for the Light. While the earlier film was set in northern Chile and dealt with earth as its defining element, this new work focuses on the southern part of the country and functions as an exploration of water, among many things. Guzmán brings together two important tales, each signified by a pearl button found in the depths of the ocean, and builds bridges between two monumental crimes in Chilean history: the massacre of the indigenous peoples of the archipelago by the white invaders and the killing of thousands of citizens as ‘political criminals’ during the Pinochet dictatorship. As is always the case with Guzmán, The Pearl Button is far more than a dry essay. The director makes meaningful use of stunning shots of the glaciers near the southern cape, touching interviews with indigenous survivors, remarkable archival photos, magnificent cosmic imagery, and even a devastating recreation of the way Pinochet’s soldiers got rid of the bodies of thousands of victims. A truly creative, moving, and significant film which deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.

If all three of these prize winners have one thing in common, it is the presence of a strong political or social component. Since such elements are handled with notable artistic merit, it would be a mistake to claim that political content is the main reason why these accomplished films were rewarded. Having said that, I would have loved to see more appreciation for two films in the competition, whose pleasures are primarily sensory rather than textual. The first one is the remarkable Vietnamese film Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories by Phan Dang Di. Made up of strong individual moments reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai films (and Days of Being Wild in particular), this melancholic and nostalgic look at the Vietnam of the late nineties and the early millennium is marked by a sustained sense of sexual tension and yearning. All the characters in the film, living in extremely close proximity, long for one another but repress their feelings. Aided by a memorable musical score, wonderful traditional Vietnamese songs, and top-notch cinematography, the director confidently jumps between various narrative strands yet manages to keep a coherent, immersive mood throughout the film both in the rural sections and in the scenes that take place in Saigon. A vasectomy campaign supported by the government, a high degree of ambiguity regarding the sexual orientations of the characters, and an eerie depiction of the beautiful Mekong region form a truly unique and seductive background for this layered, atmospheric film.

Similarly deserving of a prize was a debut feature from Italian director Laura Bispuri, Sworn Virgin. This tale of an Albanian woman who has made a lifelong commitment to living like a man to improve her social status clearly has lots to say about gender roles, stereotyping, and the patriarchal nature of many modern societies. Yet, this beautifully shot film works on a deeper, more general level regarding the difficulty of transcending psychological borders and coming to terms with long-suppressed feelings. Hana (or Mark in her masculine identity), played by the always-wonderful Alba Rohrwacher in a convincing, nuanced performance, is hesitant to follow her instincts; she cannot easily break her oath even after she has no reason to keep it any longer. The film visualizes her identity crisis through the most silent, visual, and subtlest cinematic means. Alternating between flashbacks of Hana’s transformation in Albania and her new life in Italy, Bispuri puts together extraordinarily evocative moments to tell her story. Multiple scenes by a pool used for synchronized swimming (a sport that is synonymous with a rigid, orderly understanding of femininity), haunting images of the Albanian mountains, and a moving final scene set in a bar provide plenty of reason to mark down Bispuri as a major talent to watch.

The most perfect balance between political arguments and distinctive, poetic cinematic expression was found in Aleksey German’s challenging yet ultimately mesmerizing film Under Electric Clouds, in my opinion. This dense film made up of seven gradually intertwining chapters investigates globalization, the shift of power it causes, the communication paralysis it creates, and the great sense of loss it leaves behind among many other hefty themes. German links the stories through a number of relevant symbolic, recurring devices such as a broken electronic gadget, a death, or a foreign language the characters fail to understand. Partially set in the near future and also visiting the near history of the country, the film clearly speaks about contemporary Russia. But I think the real beauty of this film lies in its melancholic depiction of a more universal element of the human condition, the never-ending longing for a different era. All the characters in Under Electric Clouds are trapped in the present, unable to (re)capture the glory of either the past or the future. They are swept away with an overwhelming sadness, which finds the most exquisite visual expression in German’s astonishingly choreographed tracking shots. Every single shot in this majestic, graceful film is suitably cold, drained of color, and very beautiful in a traditionally Russian sense (Tarkovsky is an obvious reference here, though the film also reminded me of the late Greek master Theo Angelopoulos). The carefully composed visuals often have a dreamlike quality and contribute immensely both to the political dimension of the film and its memorable atmosphere. A few notches above all the other accomplished works presented in the festival, I feel that Under Electric Clouds is the masterwork that will be the most highly regarded film to emerge from this Berlinale in years to come. It is unfortunate that a well-deserved prize for cinematography had to suffice in terms of the distribution of awards.

Inevitably, not every film in the festival was great. The disappointments include As We Were Dreaming, Andreas Dresen’s flat soap opera condensed into a two-hour film; Knight of Cups, Terrence Malick’s repetitive and banal take on the spiritual emptiness of fame, luxury, and excess (though it has many passionate supporters as well, just like any other Malick film); and the awkwardly titled Every Thing Will Be Fine, Wim Wenders’ well-directed melodrama suffering from a terrible script and strangely unconvincing performances. Werner Herzog’s unapologetically old-fashioned and melodramatic Queen of the Desert, featuring a great performance by Nicole Kidman, was also considered a disappointment, but I thoroughly enjoyed this gorgeous production, a loving, surprisingly anti-epic reconstruction of the Middle East (nowadays depicted on screen in endless ugliness and misery) and a woman’s deep fascination with it. Two films from the Far East, Jiang Wen’s Gone with the Bullets and Chasuke’s Journey by Sabu, must also be counted among the disappointing efforts as they both lose their way in overstuffed, exhausting second halves despite promisingly energetic and creative opening sections.

These were made up for by a large number of good films, which I do not have sufficient space to elaborate on further here. 45 Years is expertly acted by deserving Silver Bear winners Tom Courtenay and in particular Charlotte Rampling. It showcases Andrew Haigh’s talent for natural and meaningful dialogue, which has now become a trademark for the director. Aferim! is a profoundly ironic western/road film by Romanian director Radu Jude, set in 1835 but clearly reflecting the ethnic rivalries of the present day Balkans. Difficult themes such as Roman slavery and the abused’s tendency to also oppress those that are weaker than themselves (a theme also addressed in Benoît Jacquot’s handsome, unjustly dismissed version of Diary of a Chambermaid) are handled with humor and great formal rigor. Victoria is a 134-minute single take, which works as an edge-of-the-seat action film, features a very large number of characters, and takes place in over twenty different locations. A memorable experience despite some inevitable shortcomings in the story (especially the motivations behind the eponymous character’s willingness to make drastic decisions).