Eduardo’s Berlin Film Festival Diaries
As opposed to Cannes (open only to film professionnals), the Berlin Film Festival is open to everyone, and it is possible to see people lining for hours (sometimes under the snow) in order to get tickets for films from Taiwan, Latvia or Paraguay. This gives the entire city a really festive touch, with posters and pictures of actors and directors all over. The problem is that people can get tickets up to three days in advance, so when I got here, there were no tickets for the opening film or the new Roman Polanski. Apparently, I didn’t miss much, except the chance to use a couple of prison jokes.
Today’s first competition entry was the Romanian film If I want to whistle, I whistle, based on a play by the same name. A young kid is spending the last days of his stint at the juvenile prison hoping to get back to his life and his young brother. His mother, absent the previous eight years, shows up to let him know that she is planning to take the kid back with her to Italy. Desperate, he tries to escape. The movie is a few minutes longer than it should be, but it is interesting nonetheless, especially given than director Florian Serbin chose his cast among real inmates in juvenile prisons.
The first terrible movie of the festival was My name is Khan, a simplistic (yet unbelievably contrived ) call for tolerance. Bollywood superstar Sha Rukh Khan plays Khan, a young muslim man with Asperger’s Syndrome that moves to San Francisco, meets the love of his life but then suffers first hands the effects of the racism triggered by the 9/11 attacks, so he travels to Washington to look for George Bush and tell him “My name is Khan, and I’m not a terrorist”. It is certainly very silly, and it could’ve been (a little) charming if it wasn’t so blatantly trying to appeal to the same target as Slumdog millionaire or The Kite Runner. A few hours before the Berlin premiere, 2000 protesters were arrested in Mumbai, nationalists trying to stop the release of the film because now they consider Khan a traitor.
Today’s theme at the festival was the fragility of the human mind. The movies presented deal all with very damaged individuals who have had it tough, and keep making mistake after mistake. The least interesting of them was Greenberg, Noah Baumbach’s follow up to the mostly despised Margot at the Wedding (which I liked a lot). This time, Baumbach tells the story of a Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller), a New Yorker who had a promising future as a musician but now works as a carpenter and longs for “not doing anything”. After a nervous breakdown lands him briefly at an institution, Greenberg goes back to his native Los Angeles for a few days and tries to rekindle his relationship with his former friends (and frustrated band-mates) and flirts between the young nanny/assistant of her brother and an old flame. Obsessive compulsive, rude and without much redeeming features, it is never really clear why the friends even talk to him, let alone why some woman would be remotely attracted to him. It is not even clear why someone would make a movie about a character like that. Greenberg has a few good jokes, some great acting (especially from Jennifer Jason Leigh and Greta Gerwig) and a pertinent meditation on growing old, but nothing really goes anywhere.
More disturbing was Submarino, from Thomas Vinterberg, who seemed poised to be the next wunderkind after his debut Festen in 1998, but has instead kept a very low profile. Submarino starts with a brief prologue in which we meet Nick and his younger brother, whose daily life is marked by poverty and an abusive, drunk mother. They have each other, and both take care lovingly of their baby brother while the mother is out partying. The baby dies and we reencounter the brothers some twenty years later, still severely wounded by their childhood experiences; one is a violent, frustrated man whose only interest are the gym and booze, while his brother is a single father, loving, but with heroin addiction issues. We follow Nick during the first hour of the movie, then there is a time shift and we follow his brother, a few weeks before the beginning of Nick’s story, all working up to a final reencounter. Yes, it is all very grim and depressing, but it is definitely a good movie.
Of course, past mistakes and mourning can also translate as alternative realities, as Martin Scorsese demonstrates on Shutter Island. Since the first images, Scorsese manages to disturb the audience with some great images and some pretty dark themes; unfortunately, the ending is quite ridiculous, in my opinion, and what could have been a fantastic horror film turns into an OK movie.
On the Forum, the program described La Bocca del lupo (The wolf’s mouth) as “a love story between transsexual Mary and Enzo, a Sicilian with a moustache”. However, the film is a lot more than that. A documentary about the lower depths of a Genovese neighbourhood, produced by a Jesuit organization working in the area, lovingly put together mixing formats (8mm, 16mm, video) with archive footage and home movies. Original, touching, poetic and funny, The Wolf’s Mouth showed that somehow after all the darkness, there’s always light.
The two movies in competition showed two very different men about to leave prison. The German film Der Rauber, (The Robber) tells the story (apparently true) on a man named Johann Retenberg, who spends his days in prison (after a bank robbery gone wrong) training for a marathon, running in circles in the small yard or at the treadmill he managed to get into his cell. As soon as he leaves, he can’t help going back to his previous life, both robbing banks and running. When he ends up winning the Vienna marathon he gets some unwelcomed attention, but neither that nor the love of a woman can get him to stop.
En ganske snill mann (A somewhat gentle man) tells a completely different story. Stellan Skarsgaard plays Ulrik, a once violent man who is leaving prison now very mellow. He wants to get back to his life as a mechanic and tries to have a relationship with his son, but his mafia pals insist on him getting even with the man who denounced him. With the usual black, almost surreal humour of Norwegian films (similar to The Bothersome Men o r Kitchen Stories), director Hans Peter Moland takes a very critical look at one of the riches countries on earth while making fun of all the grittiness. Very funny.
Sometimes it happens that certain films at festivals show some common theme.. Sometimes it is a strong presence of mothers. Sometimes it’s children in search of their parents. At this year’s festival, it was men leaving prison. In Raffi Pitt’s Sherkarchi (The Hunter), a rather bizarre Iranian entry, a man leaves prison and finds a job as a nightwatch. One day he comes home to find that his wife and little daughter have disappeared. When he finds out that they have been killed at a crossfire between police and political demonstrators, he snaps and becomes a sniper, targeting police. Pitts wanted to use only non professional actors, but when he realized his main lead was not up to the challenge, he took himself the title role. The film has some very interesting points and some welcomed ambiguity, but the strange structure (it almost feels like two completely different movies put together) can be a turn off.
The same thing can be said about the much praised Kak ya provel etim letom (How I ended my summer), a very slow burner about two men in a remote climate station in the Arctic, where they are the only inhabitants. One is older, experienced family man, the other one is a young slacker. They both respect each other, until an interesting development, a few days before the boat which will take them back is expected, shakes the fragile equilibrium in the station. The problem is that such development happens only halfway through the film.
The German entry Shahara (Faith) divided critics but was loved by the audience. Three stories around young, second generation Muslims living in Berlin; the seemingly liberal daughter of an imam has an illegal abortion that triggers some unexpected consequences in the community, a young Nigerian, very religious, who starts to develop feeling for his friend and is not quite ready to accept them and a cop who is still feels guilty about a shootout and the woman who survived. The three story structure and Crash-like encounters are wearing thin, but the film is handsomely built and has a lot to recommend, especially after finding out that it started as a film school project.
On the Panorama section, the highlight was the Taiwanese Monga, an action film about small time gangs trying to ascend to the big league of crime. A young man moves into the title neighbourhood and almost instantly gets in trouble with some bullies. Since he turns out to be good at fighting, he catches the eye of the more powerful band, whose leader is the son of the real mobster boss. The young man, who grew up without a father and without friends, embraces the group and soon finds himself at the center of the power struggles between different gangs. Without being as stylish as the works of Johhnie To or Tsui Hark, Monga is beautiful to look at, and it is also fun, exhilarating and surprisingly moving in the last act. So far, the film has made more money at home than Avatar, which is a great thing.
The best film of the final few days turned out to be Please Give, which, like the other fully American films, was shown out of competition. After her truly awful Jennifer Anniston vehicle Friends with money, director Nicole Holofcener brought an honest, unpretentious and very funny meditation on growing old and also on being a good person. Catherine Keener plays a middle age woman with a standard family, a good business and a nice apartment. She and her husband have bought the apartment next door, allowing the current tenant, a cranky old lady, to remain there indefinitely (e.g. until she dies), which starts to bring guilt to her (but not to her husband, daughter or even one the granddaughters of the lady). All the other characters have issues connecting to the rest of the world and understanding the process of ageing, but as opposed to most “indie” movies, this results in very believable, realistic actions. Finally, an “indie” film that is not a dark satire of life in the suburbs or only a Hollywood movie that only cost 10 million.
Not much to report on the Turkish entry Bal (Honey), one of “nothing happens, therefore it is brilliant”-type films. A child lives with his family on a remote village in the forest. His dad collects wild honey, his mom collects tea leaves. The kid goes to school and that’s it; viewers who did not leave the cinema were treated to scenes such as a pencil being sharpened, or a boy completing charts on a blackboard. It could’ve been great (the cinematography is extraordinary and the child actor is really charming) but there is absolutely nothing to relate to the little that happens on screen. The film is the final film of a trilogy that included Eggs and Milk, and apparently, Honey is the most accessible.
On the Panorama section, the Brazilian Besouro managed to have even more walkouts, though the people who stayed seemed to really enjoy the movie. A movie that Steven Seagal or Van Damme would’ve loved to make twenty years ago, about a young man who is ridden by guilt for not saving his capoeira master. Thanks to some voodoo craft and his extraordinary abilities on the martial art, he becomes some sort of super hero who can fly, transform himself into animals and is immune to bullets. There is a love story, betrayal and lots of fights (a couple of them really inspired), the bad guys are really bad and it’s a luscious production, but the whole thing is so silly that in a few years might get cult status, as with the Santo movies.
The last days of the festival were marked by many complaints from a number of critics who complained about the low quality of the films in competition (Variety and Indiewire were particularly on-point, the latter calling it “a selection of B-sides”). Most of those articles had as example the inclusion of the local film Jud Suss, Film Ohne Gewissen (Jew Suss, Film without conscience), by Oskar Roehler. The starting point was the fascinating (and real) story of Ferdinand Marian, a stage actor that is handpicked by Goebbles to star in “the most important film ever, our Battleship Potemkin” a film that will help convince those with doubts about the extermination. The film in question is Jud Suss, film almost as infamous as The Eternal Jew and still banned in Germany. Thoroughly offended by the offer (his wife is a quarter Jewish and they have been hiding a Jewish actor in their house), Marian finally is forced to accept, with the idea of making a sympathetic portrait and provoke the opposite effect. Most critics found the film as revolting as the original (some excerpts of which are used here) but some in the audience liked it.
Same thing goes for Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me, whose mixed reactions started at Sundance a couple of weeks ago. I really enjoyed the first part of the story of Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), a police officer with a soft voice and a child’s face, who is also a pretty sick psychopath. The retro credits and cool atmosphere made me think that Jessica Alba could finally say she had starred in a good movie, but alas, the final minutes rolled, and the cartoonish violence took over. In his best films (and there are many, many of them), Winterbottom manages to successfully marry style and substance, but here the impression is that he really had not much to say.
The Berlinale showed some interesting visions of women from all sorts of backgrounds. The most interesting was Na Putu, (On the Path), by the Bosnian Jasmina Zbanic, who won the Golden Bear a couple of years ago with Esma’s Secret. Far superior, On the path starts as just another contemporary tale of a couple trying to have a child. Luna is a flight attendant, Amar is a traffic controller and they adore each other. But when Amar loses his job because he enjoys booze a little too much, he starts to crack. The encounter of a friend he hasn’t seen since the war send him on a rather complicated path. Rompecabezas (Puzzle), first film by Argentinian Natalia Smirnoff was an enjoyable, delicate tale (too delicate for many). A woman who just turned 50 receives a puzzle as a gift. She turns out to be good at it, which opens for her the door to the world of puzzle competitions, but also to an entire universe outside her family and house chores.
– Eduardo Lucatero