By Robert Koehler
The Berlinale is stumbling, bumbling along through its final days, and here’s what can definitively said: Even with more than enough films that don’t belong in a major lineup, the competition isn’t completely bad, and Forum is–with a few exceptions–a bust. While not quite a reversal of fortunes, the relative rise of the competition and decline of Forum is what the 61st edition of the Berlinale is going to be remembered for–that and the premiere of The Turin Horse, Bela Tarr’s last film. (Or so he claims, as of today.)
Berlin’s competitions haven’t been memorable or meaningful for years, and like last year, almost no films that premiere there are films remembered at the end of the year. Put another way, Cannes’ competition, as compromised as its been recently, runs rings around Berlin’s. But with all of the competition films now premiered and red-carpeted, it’s clear that Tarr’s Horse, Koehler’s Sleeping Sickness, Asghar Farhadi’s Nader and Simin, A Separation and Joshua Marston’s American-made-in-Albania drama The Forgiveness of Blood (a surprise, given its late position in the schedule, usually slotted for lesser entries) are the class of the field. The lineup is still full of work that doesn’t rank as considerable festival cinema–that is, either as films that will stand the test of time, films that will have a good life on the festival circuit, or films that will shift from the circuit to general distribution.
In that context, it’s pretty safe to say that only Tarr and Koehler are really major cinema, triumphs of a marriage of ideas, narrative and form. Farhadi’s film is a case of a finely honed screenplay (with a few devices that begin to bother you in the days after you see the film) but perfectly bland as cinema, with a brilliant cast and filmmaking that’s no better than the standard commercial Iranian movie. The many lesser competition films deserve no more than passing mention: Seyfi Teoman’s Our Grand Despair, about a woman getting over the sudden death of her parents by living with a couple of buddies in Ankara; Paula Markovitch’s El Primio (The Prize), which impresses as an observation of childrens’ behavior under stress, but is much too obvious as a political drama set during Argentina’s “Dirty War”; Margin Call, a dull and talky debut that would be fine on AMC by a hack director named JC Chandor about a Wall Street brokerage house’s internal financial meltdown that’s briefly brought to life by the entry of Jeremy Irons; Miranda July’s pointess exercise The Future, unfunny and lacking in the handful of memorable moments that sparked at least parts of her first film, Me and You and Everyone We KnowMe and You and Everyone We Know; Lee Yoon-ki’s disappointing Come Rain, Come Shine, which liberally borrows from both Antonioni’s Eclipse (the opening sequence) and Tsai Ming-liang’s rain-soaked films as it putters its way through an over-extended dramatization of a married couple’s last night and day together (or not) with a painfully cute errant kitty; Rodrigo Moreno’s meandering doodle, Un Mundo Misterioso (Mysterious World), while a bit better than his debut, El Custodio, finds a world in the city of Buenos Aires but doesn’t seem the least bit interested in the mysteries of the world of Portenos.
Word on the street is generally bad on other competition films, including Victoria Mahoney’s Preciouswannabe Yelling to the Sky; Andres Veiel’s Germany-in-Autumn drama, Wer Wenn Nicht War (If Not Us, Who); Michel Ocelot’s Les Contes de la nuit (Tales of the Night), which reportedly just continues his usual silhouette animation technique (a truly acquired taste which I’ve never bought), this time with the inevitable 3-D cream on top, which Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick has licked up mightily considering the presence of this and two new 3-D films by those German giants, Wenders (the bad dance film, Pina, easily the most overrated film of the festival) and Herzog (his effortlessly fascinating and ultimately mad exploration of the ultimate caveman’s cave, Cave of Forgotten Dreams).
I haven’t talked to anyone who’s seen Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut starring Ralph Fiennes as Coriolanus in the bloody Balkans circa 1990s, which is an early sign that it’s leaving little impression. (In the States, thanks to the Weinstein Company, we’ll have plenty of opportunity to catch up with it.) That leaves out Alexander Mindadze’s generally well-received Innocent Saturday (which I haven’t seen), about Soviets reacting the day that Chernobyl released its deadly nuclear scourge. As the Bear approaches, expect a jury dominated by Isabella Rossellini and Guy Madden to focus on Tarr, Koehler and Farhadi, with a possible nod to Marston. With the smallest total of films in memory–16, suggesting that Kosslick and the Berlinale had to reach far and wide just to fill in the lineup, and couldn’t find a round number of 20 titles (the usual number).
Forum failed to deliver to a disturbing degree, with a seemingly endless roster of films (double the number in competition) rife with problems. I just went through Forum’s alpha index list, and could find only seven titles to check mark as worth mentioning. One of these (Hirohara Satoru’s Good Morning to the World!) is old news from Vancouver (which I wrote about extensively on Film Comment‘s online edition). Another (James Benning’s Twenty Cigarettes) is a minor work from a major filmmaker, wonderful as a miniature but a certain footnote in his overall body of work. Another (Marcela Said’s and Jean de Certeau’s El Mocito) is a modest, intelligently made study of a man in his 50s trying to overcome and perhaps absolve himself of his sins for being part of Pinochet’s torture machine during the Chilean coup of the early 1970s; a nice entry in the growing movement of Chilean non-fiction, but, again, hardly a major work.
That leaves four new noteworthy films in Forum: Volker Sattel’s Under Control elegantly captures the rise and fall of nuclear power facilities in Germany and Austria with a precision that recalls Austrian documentary filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter; Bujar Alimani’s Amnesty presents a brilliantly ironic narrative paralleling the lives of a man and woman whose respective spouses are behind bars; Marie Losier’s The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye is an intoxicating, fluid work (largely narrated by former Throbbing Gristle star Genesis P-Orridge) about the great, tragic love of his life, Lady Jaye, and their project in pan-sexuality–literally attempting to remake their bodies into twins–and Tiago Mata Machado’s The Residents, which is more like the kind of cinema you expect from Forum: formally challenging, thematically subversive, real cinema (and in 35mm!). In fact, Machado’s film is the only Forum film I saw that suggested something genuinely new, even as it portrayed/dramatized/documented (possibly all three, so fluid and elusive are the sources) a performance art project designed to “kill” art.
Machado’s second film (I haven’t seen his first, though I hear that it’s similarly radical) is inspired in part by Godard’s La Chinoise and the Situationists, while expressing the dizzying vigor that’s often on view in the non-fiction cinema by younger Brazilian filmmakers. (And why is it that Brazilian non-fiction films are, in general, so vastly superior to Brazilian narratives?) It presents a group of squatters in a big city zone who engage in everything from innocent horseplay to kidnapping to staging actions that block city traffic–pure anarchism, as it’s rarely depicted in films, and certainly not with this kind of visual control and beauty, which is another connection to Godard, as well as a sense of word play, as when the letters of the word “AESTHETICS” are spray-painted on locker doors, which are then opened and closed to subsequently read “STRETCH” and then “ETHICS.” The film itself is anarchistic, which is partly why it’s impossible to determine (and not clarified in the Forum’s extensive catalog notes) whether Machado captured an actual performance art collective doing its thing, or wrote and staged it, or created some kind of fusion of both. Besides, demarcating between fiction and not is irrelevant to The Residents, which is ultimately about the uselessness of art regardless of what form or nature it takes. The final images in a film that seems at points to be a love letter to Godard’s longtime cinematographer Raoul Coutard capture the (actual) demolition of the buildings which have been occupied by the Residents throughout the film; even the architecture which the viewer has begun to grasp in this remarkably vertiginous film dissolves before our eyes, a reminder that everything is possible when nothing is stable.
Next up in Berlin Viewings: Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse. (And will it win the Golden Bear? We’ll learn in a few hours…)