- Christian Hain
The Berlinale Trilogy, Part 2 – A Film Festival
This page will be updated with more reviews as the festival continues.
(Berlin.) The first days of Berlinale are over and the competition is well underway.
The opening film was called Django, and it was not part of a Tarantino retrospective. This Django is a French (non-)biopic of Gipsy Jazzer Django Reinhardt, and if anything, it compares to Inglorious Basterds. Focusing on one single year in the musician’s life, 1943, and his flight from Paris to Switzerland to avoid a forced tour through Nazi Germany where his people was murdered at the same time, few is known about the actual biographical facts. The film presents its own version, and maybe you could call it “alternative history.” Too much dialogue and scenes seem stereotypical, heard and watched over a thousand times before. You might also wonder, why every travelling gipsy in the film is a proficient jazz musician, instead of playing his traditional music (which influenced Reinhardt). Ultimately, every biography of a gifted musician faces the same problem: If you don’t use original recordings, the score is fake. Yes, it’s great music, yes, it’s performed very well, but you’re not listening to Django Reinhardt himself. It’s like a book on Picasso showing only forgeries.
Chances to win the Golden Bear Award: About as probable as Django Reinhardt leading the Billboard charts this summer.
The second day started with Hungarian Ildikó Enyedi's Testről és lélekről (On Body and Soul). Again, music plays a crucial part, but here it’s only one song to mark the story’s turning point. On Body and Soul is a beautiful movie about two people learning to feel, and the most surprising love story you’ve seen in years. When the manager of a slaughterhouse meets a sociopathic new worker, higher powers intervene. The irrational, the animalistic, the metaphysical, the magic of dreams, break into modern life to quite literally save two broken existences. You just have to endure the first twenty minutes, thinking: “Oh God no, a vegan manifesto!” The Indian guy left to me looked around in disgust at the Western barbarians, the blonde American two seats to my right hid her head between her knees. It's tough. But the violence later is balanced with much humour too. Industrial modernity versus nature, civilization versus animality on many levels, and a longing for magic that will, and will only, exist if you believe in it. The story is universally valid, it could be set everywhere, if you don’t know it’s Hungary, you might think the scenery Scandinavian, American, or whatever. Do watch this film. And learn to love again.
Chances to win Berlinale’s Golden Bear Award: Would definitely deserve it. But I’m afraid, it’s not political enough.
The Dinner is solid Hollywood material with a brilliant cast: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan all could win Berlinale’s actor’s awards. But this alone won't make a good movie.
The Dinner might be based on a good novel, but it does not work out on screen. Presented in different chapters titled like the courses of a menu, of which as everywhere the dessert is the best, it's telling the story of two families, of two brothers. The younger (Coogan) is a cynical ex-high school teacher of History who was forced to quit for an alleged mental illness (talking too honestly to his students and an empty classroom), the elder (Gere) currently running for governor. A tragedy, a heinous crime committed by their teenage sons, brings up long lasting conflicts, and in the end those who we’d supposed to be the most tactical, the most scheming, – almost - act the most honourable. Were it not for the mothers who in true classical tradition will do anything to protect their breed. Events slowly unfold in a nonlinear narrative, it takes time to understand who knows what and who did not tell whom. A side plot about the American civil war seems as unnecessary as it is annoying. Yes, Coogan's character is obsessed with (that) war, not knowing whether it's a good thing or not, that all those people died, many of whom "were assholes, according to logics" (his words). In the end, he choses violence.
When it comes to tragicomic family troubles, I’ll choose Polanski’s Carnage every day.
Chances to win Berlinale’s Golden Bear Award: For the film: Nope. For the actors: All the best.
Competition (Out of competition)
Trainspotting (1996) went down in history as one of the best literature adaptations ever, and also for its soundtrack released on two CDs, Trainspotting #1 and #2. Twenty years later, director Danny Boyle and the original cast around Ewan McGregor are back with T2-Trainspotting 2, loosely based on Irvine Welsh’s follow-up novel Porno (2002). They made quite a few changes, but the idea remains the same. In short: ‘Rents’ returns home to Edinburgh to meet his former Junkie friends whom he last saw when he stole (most of) their money from a drug deal.
There is a magnificent album of Glaswegian musicians Bill Wells and Aidan Moffat called Everything’s Getting Older, and although Irvine Welsh’s Edinburgh “schemies wouldnae apprrove the fookin' Weegie soap dodgers” (sorry, I don't want to pretend to be Scottish, I just love the country), it perfectly captures the mood of this film. Sadly it's not used in the score. Our heroes too have grown older, and this includes Danny Boyle and maybe even Irvine Welsh; maybe they have even grown wiser. There is less party, and more struggle, less nihilism and more regrets. Trainspotting 2 is at its worst when that legendary quote/poem/rant/raving on “Choose Life” gets warmed up with some political correctness added. On the other hand, the film reaches its best when it successfully stimulates nostalgia. When Renton starts playing a record in his childhood bedroom and you only catch a second of Lust for Life, or that other moment you recognize Born Slippy in the background (a new remix here), will bring a tear to many an eye of those who’ve been around back then.
Not in the competition, thus no chance to win anything but the box office.
Félicité is fully focused on Africa, following its main characters in many close up shots. The superficial attempt at story telling is abandoned halfway through the film, when Félicité has finally found the money to pay for her son’s surgery after a motorcycle accident, although it’s too late and his leg already got amputated. It’s a film full of repetitions, of ever recurring musical scenes to fill the time – we understood quite well after the first scene, that Félicité is a bar singer. One hundred and twenty-three minutes are much too long for what is basically a documentary, a panorama of African life. Install a webcam in the poorer parts of Kinshasa, and watch it for an hour, you’ll learn as much as by watching Félicité. But you would miss non-pro actor Papi Mpaka who is doing just great. His portrayal of the alcoholic optimist boyfriend (Félicité is “small house” to him, as they say in certain parts of Africa) is a true highlight.
Chances to win Berlinale’s Golden Bear Award: This is not the Nobel Prize, you won’t get it for the colour of your skin alone. But Felicité raises awareness for the African film industry which is a good thing. It exists, and that’s a start.
Competition (Out of competition)
Another film out of competition, and another portrait of the artist, as an old man: The Final Portrait. In 1964, Alberto Giacometti painted American writer James Lord who afterwards wrote a book on the experience. The film shows one of the last Bohèmian artists, an alcoholic, misogynist, dirty old man, terrorizing his friends and family. And you’ll love him for it.
This is a film full of clichés, portraying an artist just like Joe Average imagines him, drinking, whoring, cursing, occasionally even creating. And it works. Of course, the portrait of a bon vivant genius stops short at being too truthful. It’s plain ridiculous to see James Lord openly declare his homosexuality in the 1960s, and on the other hand the ever abusive Giacometti never even jokingly calling him a “faggot”. I don’t believe it. But that’s alternative facts we’re perfectly used to.
What a coincidence, that portrait sold for $20M at Christie’s in 2015. Maybe the buyer resides in LA?
No chances for that Bear, as out of competition. Geoffrey Hurst (Alberto Giaocometti), Tony Shalhoub (Diego Giacometti) and Sylvie Testud (Annette Arm) deserve every award in the world, though.
Wilde Maus (Wild/Savage Mouse) is an Austrian comedy that has some good punchlines. But neither characters nor story are believable. The famous music critic of a Vienna newspaper loses his job because the new girl in town is cheaper and less competent. He spends his days at the fairground, invests in the rollercoaster of a white trash high school friend, separates and later reunites with his wife, on the way failing to kill his former boss and himself. We don’t understand this character who looks much too fashionable for a supposed expert of classic music and nothing else. We don’t understand, why he won’t try to find a new job - being a celebrated star in his field of work with a respectable resume. We don't understand why he won't tell his incompetent psychiatrist wife about his sacking. We don’t understand, why he prefers riding through the park on a toy train over visiting the famous Vienna coffeehouses (again: he’s supposed to be a conservative music nerd). We don’t understand why he takes to violence. We don’t understand the appeal of his averagely attractive forty-three year old wife to him in his fifties, a gay thirty-something whom she almost converts to the fertile side of life, and a twenty year old student neighbour. This Falling Down story is never believable, and it's not for the point of departure: Society does dumb down, and all work must be cost-effective. But you need to tell your story better.
By the way, is it supposed to be a joke when one of the multicultural extras in the café scene wears a Jack Daniels promo T-Shirt under her hijab?
Chances to win Berlinale’s Golden Bear Award: I wouldn't understand it.
-----UPDATE 12 February -----
Around the world with Berlinale, next stop: Poland. Agnieszka Holland’s Pokot (Spoor) IS a Vegan manifesto. And another film that could not be worse if you cut out half an hour. A senior woman from a small village in the magnificent Polish forests stands up for non-human animals and against human hunters, more radical than even Peter Singer would justify. She did not think it through though, her body keeps killing germs, and those she rescues won’t stop their hunt (some say, hunting is the most acceptable way to meat, not involving human lies and deceit). But that’s not the point here. For quite a while, viewers are led to think of Hitchcock’s Birds, and other stories about revolting non humans that inspired him, from Daphne du Meurier to Arthur Machen. But in the end, Spoor is a much more personal story of revenge. Maybe we only ever protect, and pity, those who are close to us, regardless of their species.
Chances to win Berlinale’s Golden Bear Award: Neither is the film good nor its mission fashionable enough.
Competition (Out of Competition)
You always liked history lessons in school? You want your films doctrinal and edifying? Then I have something for you: Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House.
The story: In 1947, Lord Mountbatten (Battenberg for the Germans) becomes the last British viceroy of India. Appointed to prepare the country for independence, he is forced to cut off a slide, and name it Pakistan. The viceroy himself was innocent, the "Mountbatten plan" actually devised by Churchill to secure strategic positions and petrol against the Soviets.
The thesis: All this was a bad idea.
The style: Most dialogues seem to be written by a history teacher, reciting facts and statistics for you to learn by heart until tomorrow. The poor actors are to pity, there is no chance they could counterbalance the horrible writing. Ghandi appears to talk some sense, but he's only a caricature of Ben Kingsley.
Add a stylistic device to make it more interesting for the bad pupils - introduce a Muslim girl and a Hindu boy in love. Their reunion will be the symbol of a possible reunion. See, why they show it in Berlin?
Sebastián Lelio: Una Mujer Fantástica (A Fantastic Woman)
In the beginning, you wonder, wtf is wrong with Chile? When a man dies of natural causes, why is his surviving (non-married) partner suspected of being a prostitute, and treated rather badly by doctors and police?
Then you get it. This mujer fantastica is actually a muchacho fantastico. You follow his ordeals with the relatives of the deceased, you like him, and you believe their love was real. The pace is right, script, camera, actors are good, times passes quickly. This film will serve the cause more than all toilet signs and changes in vocabulary.
Chances to win Berlinale’s Golden Bear Award: You tell me: It's 2017; though not Mexican, it’s still made “beyond the wall”. It’s a film about a transvesti- sorry: a transgender person. And it’s even well done.
That makeup artist is a genius.
----- UPDATE 13 February -----
“Visit Norway – And Slow Down” These words, written in large, pale red, letters, I would have expected in the last scene of Thomas Arslan’s Helle Nächte (Bright Nights): After all, this feels like a 86’ minutes commercial for Norway Tourism. The scenery is not only background, but a main attraction, as a German (Austrian actor Georg Friedrich, he also co-stars in Wilde Maus, see above) takes his teenage son (on first look another mujer fantastica, but that’s just the haircut) on a road trip to bury their estranged grand-/father who passed his last as a recluse in the far North, writing a book on “Building Bridges” – he was an engineer just like his son. Uh, the symbolism here...
Our heroes don’t know much to say to each other, the boy is living with his mother and blocks all attempts at closer ties, at first at least. Bright Nights is a slow road movie that reports all its protagonists' speechlessness without mercy for the audience - the “highlight” is a take of five minutes when we see nothing but fog through a car’s windscreen, and hear nothing but the engine and the wind. Common problems of common people, fine. But would you like to contemplate photographs of your friends’ travels for ninety minutes; in silence?
The child actor reaches his limits in the few scenes he’s asked to show some emotion. Parts of the audience were continuously snickering, it must be a form of (German) humour that escapes me: a laugh whenever something seems “authentic”.
Chances to win Berlinale’s Golden Bear Award: If only this had been directed by Norwegian Tommy Wirkola, with Nazi zombies, you know...
The Party is Sally Potter’s new comedy. And, boy, is it dark. As a woman celebrates her nomination for minister in her party’s shadow cabinet, her husband too, has some announcements to make. The lesbian, left-wing, filmmaker launches a scathing attack on lesbians and all sorts of cliché left wing characters. If anybody comes away (much too) well, talking sense, and acting from reasonable motives, it’s the one outsider, a cocaine snorting banker with a revolver (Cillian Murphy). And he's certainly not a good guy. Patricia Clarkson as a sharp tongued cynic and Bruno Ganz as a shamanic healer are brilliant (btw, you can also meditate quite well to Bright Nights), as is the rest of the cast. In history, the victors often turn out to be no less human, no less tyrannical, than the tyrants they replaced. Or, another reading, just when you think you’ve won, there might appear an obstacle that cannot be reasoned away, an illness, an unwanted vote.
Chances to win Berlinale’s Golden Bear Award: Probably too funny. But a fine film.
We don’t know how Mr Long got his name. We don’t want to. But he’s a hitman for a Taiwanese cartel. And when a job goes wrong, Mr Long is forced to spend a week in a Japanese village. Before he realizes what’s happening, he’s supporting a junkie ex-prostitute and her infant son with the revenues of a food stall the villagers built for him. Cooking is the one thing, Mr Long masters (almost) as much as killing people. But of course, the past needs to be dealt with in some way or other. The ultra right-wing stance on drugs (what a difference to Trainspotting 2...) surely is not everybody’s piece of cake. At least Mr Long doesn't go full Duterte on the girl.
Asian restaurants typically serve all courses at the same time. You take a spoonful of soup, then some meat, salad, fish, &c. and vice versa, just as you please. Mr Long is made after the same blueprint. There’s a bit of gangster movie, romance, social/family drama, slapstick comedy (the butcher is also the village idiot), and more. There’s some Léon: The Professional. Still, the story is predictable. Confucius says, “Change constantly.” No, I made that up. But often Japanese restaurants outside Japan are Chinese managed. Sometimes you wonder, who ever selected this film for a festival, and even the competition. Occasionally, you understand why.
Chances to win Berlinale’s Golden Bear Award: ‘I’m so sorry’, but no. The second half is entertaining, though.
----- UPDATE 14 February -----
‘Suppose, they gave a war, and everybody was leaving.’
The Finnish legend Aki Kaurismäki returns with Toivon Tuolla Puolen (The Other Side of Hope) to talk some common sense. It’s all so very easy, isn't it: Every migrant is basically a saint, a well mannered, well educated, ambassador of humanity. The limitless plains of Europe, the largest and least populated continent of all, a paradise of full employment, could and should welcome everybody, not just those innocently affected by the natural disaster of war. And it would, were it not for the evil authorities and some violent thugs who refuse to do the right thing out of spite and stupidity. Ok, seriously: I’m still waiting for an honest story about contemporary migration, with real people. Without black and white thinking. Without an ideological gap between reality and fiction. Too difficult, you think, too dangerous? Is not the perpetuated lie, perpetuated propaganda, much worse, don’t we currently witness its effects? When you hear, there’s a new film out about “refugees”, “migration”, “Syria”, don’t you know exactly what to expect? Then why should you watch it?
There won’t be a group of refugees, one of them a regular guy who is just thankful, one quite normal but despises the “kafirs”, and wants his women to walk ten paces behind, the third a young guy who upon arrival joins a street gang of compatriots. All three have suffered, and must not be sent back to death. Maybe a fourth, who actually comes from the Maghreb, took a Syrian passport, and only wants to get rich. No, such a film does not exist. Those would be believable characters. There must not be discourse, debate, or only complexity, in today's culture.
Instead, in Kaurismäki's film, one young Syrian arrives in Finland, and crosses paths with a veteran entrepreneur who has been expelled by his wife. The typical Kaurismäki characters then are introduced as the staff of a restaurant he’s taking over. The migrant is hidden, and gets a job. He even loves the restaurant’s pet dog, as every Arab is known to do, by culture. In the end, he survives a nationalist moron’s assault, and reunites with his sister who got lost on the way.
Chances to win Berlinale’s Golden Bear Award: If this was still 2016, there’d be no competition. But another refugee film won it last year. Still this will get something, there is more than one bear.
Some art, for a change. Joseph Beuys was the German Warhol, or Duchamp, and much more. Filmmaker Andres Veiel has a dream: He wants to make documentary great again. And he does. This is nothing but a collection of historical interviews and TV features, masterly edited. Thanks God he doesn’t use any enactments, nor dramatization.
Even those who never heard the name “Beuys”, are led to understand at least the character, and hopefully some of the art, too. For the expert, there are legendary works from the trees for Kassel to the coyote in America (at Rene Block’s). The biography is recounted as much as possible, including the doubts (was he really saved by Siberian Shamans who embalmed him in grease, after a plane crash in the war?).
You might also wonder, if the success of Beuys would have been possible, had the Nazis not made Germany forget all about Dada (and MERZ).
Chances to win Berlinale’s Golden Bear Award: Probably none. But if you’re into contemporary art, or you know somebody whom you want to interest in contemporary art, that’s the film.
Competition (Out of competition)
Nothing is known about Berlinale’s Golden Bear yet, but if there was a ‘Weeping Bear” award, a “Sad Grizzly” or what, it could only go to Martin Provost’s Sage Femme (The Midwife). Catherine Deneuve portrays Béatrice, a former it-girl, now old and dying, who returns to Paris to meet the daughter of a man she’s left decades ago. She doesn't know, he shot himself over her, and his daughter found the body. That daughter (Catherine Frot) is "the midwife", and the film shows how hatred turns to compassion, and friendship. Even I had to swallow occasionally, and scratch my eyebrows. Great actresses in a great tragedy.
Only one, tiny, objection: This is a women’s film, alright. Few men will watch it voluntarily, and without afterthoughts (the first screening at Berlinale was on Valentine’s Day). We know, that main character is a midwife, it even says so in the title. Then why show about ten births in all bloody, disgusting, detail? Do you really need to add nausea to boredom for the viewers with Y-chromosome? It’s utterly useless for the story, it’s a time filler. Yeah, maybe to add hope: 'Where there’s death, there’s new life.' But once would have been enough. Oh, and something else, it’s more of a question: When Béatrice arrives, she pretends not to have heard about her ex-lover’s death, she never reads the journals, and she has no clue about the internet (he was a sports star, an Olympic swimming champion). Not ten minutes later, she tells us about having choosen a pretty coffin for herself online - is this just lousy writing, or a hint, the truth is different from what the whole film suggests, and she never expected to see the dead man again?
Chances to win Berlinale’s Golden Bear Award: As said above: brilliant actors, very touching. But probably not an award winner. Stop. This is out of competition, please forget what I just said.
----- UPDATE 15 February -----
Teresa Villaverde’s Colo builds a most depressive ambiance right from the start, before you even have the slightest notion of what is going on; and it won’t change to the end. The film deals with unpopular problems, with poverty in the heart of Western Europe. A father finds himself unemployed, his wife’s fulltime job won’t even pay the electricity bills, and the seventeen year old daughter is taking care of, or rather partying with, a pregnant classmate. This was the most walked out film of this year’s Berlinale so far, and I can understand it. It can seem extremely boring. But if you allow yourself to get immersed, it's quite good! The slow narration of a family breaking apart is devastating, and seems perfectly authentic (in a more interesting way than other “authentic" films. Something happens, that's all the difference). Resignedness takes the reigns, as the tragedies of life evolve, inevitable like a Greek tragedy. In the end, the situation is utterly hopeless for all characters. There is no solution, and the lies that created a temporary refuge will soon be exposed. To the steretypical Portuguese sadness, to that Fado feeling, now adds another part of the country’s identity: Catholicism. What if everything is but the punishment for a sin, a sin (of the father) that is revealed just casually? And if so, what is the sin that calls for the economic downfall of a country; is it the past? When that man, stranded in life, stands at the beach of Lisbon, you - and he himself - might think, "in the old days at least he could have taken to the seas, to fight and conquer for the Portuguese Empire".
Chances to win Berlinale’s Golden Bear Award: I don’t think so. Too unpopular, and not in a cool way.
Volker Schloendorff is mainly known for his 1979 art-house hit The Tin Drum. Today still, German media spell his full name: “Volker Schlöndorf (The Tin Drum)”. Montauk won’t change this.
Montauk is a melodrama that could be fine on (German) TV. “Max Zorn” (Stellan Skarsgård), a German writer goes on a reading tour to New York, and tries to reconcile with a former lover. The title refers to the village in the Hamptons, where they vacationed back then, and where they travel for a weekend now. The film continues to mix novel and narration, as his latest book is an autobiographic account of the regrets he feels for leaving Rebecca (Nina Hoss) all those years ago. It reminds a little of Sage Femme (see above), only it’s much worse. The script is based on an autobiographical novel by Swiss writer Max Frisch, but that does not make it better.
Schloendorff believes, he’s a writer himself, yet the dialogues are the worst part. Worse still than the acting (I’m the last one to complain about accents. But these suck. Also, Schloendorff simply does not know when, and how, to use the f-word). Stock phrases and namedropping of artists – painters and writers alike -, it all feels like a vain old man pretending to be cultured and still “hip”. And what use for that supporting role of a millionaire (ok, it’s New York: billionaire) art collector, who for no apparent reason insists on talking French?
One more thing. Maybe it’s nitpicking, or maybe I’m up to something: Volker Schlöndorff belongs to a generation of Germans who were mostly concerned with the crimes of their fathers and their own, doing some much needed work in the 1960s/70s. On this background it’s astonishing, or a symbol for changing times, a new attitude, when in this new film we witness Max commenting on Rebeccas’s(!) having taken the name of her (now deceased) husband “Epstein”: “A good name for a lawyer, especially in New York.” And she replies: “You’re still the same old racist.” That’s fine, not original at all, but fine, nobody will complain. The awkward moment is later, when both laugh about the scent of a soap, handcrafted for her. The scent is said to correspond to her personality. “You are soap?” - “Yes, I am soap.” Schloendorff knows the stories of Nazi soap made from human remains. But why is he using a dialogue like this? Is it an experiment, is he testing us, secretly counting reviews, comments, that notice the scene?
Chances to win: The Golden Raspberries? Yes. All of them. The Golden Bear? No.
Competition (Out of competition)
We've had The Dinner, The Party, and here is The Bar. Can’t help myself, but wasn’t there a time, when film titles were more inspired?
The Bar is directed by Alex de la Iglesia who's had an international success with Balada Triste in 2013 (some called it "Balada Fascista", being under the impression, its good guys were the Francoists). El Bar is a comedy turning to horror thriller. Imagine you step into a Madrid bar in broad daylight as suddenly the streets are void, and everyone who steps out of the door gets shot. Stay inside, “and wait for all this to blow over”? Love you for the thought, but it won't work in The Bar. There’s blood, there's people turning on each other in a merciless fight for survival, and there's a fantastic woman, a true one. It’s out of competition, but if the jury plans on having a fun night after the Berlinale, they should get a case of beer and a pack of crisps for each, and watch this. It’s the perfect movie to relax. Would be great though, if the Spanish actors could talk slower, you need to be a quick reader for those subtitles...
----- UPDATE 16 February -----
South Korea has its own culture, its own traditions, and its own way to tell a story. You must never forget this when watching Bamui haebyun-eoseo honja (On the Beach at Night Alone). Otherwise you will hate it, or think it ridiculous. The other still exists here. I’m not an expert in South Korean culture, to be frank, I know nothing about it. The first scenes of Hong Sangsoo’s film follow a Korean actress on vacation in Germany. They apparently hired untrained locals for the German roles (that bookseller/composer is a "highlight"). In the second chapter, she’s back home, but acting strange, she won’t recognize her friends. Has she been replaced, maybe sent back her secret twin sister? No, too very Western thinking, of course. Neither was that man who carried her away at the end of the first chapter an agent of Kim Jong-Un’s, to reprogram her in the North. He might be a ghost, or a symbol, or an example of South Korean slapstick humour. He makes a second apparition as a window cleaner, ignored by all present. That young actress, we learn, had an affair with the married director of her last film, and it didn’t turn out well. There is a lot of talking, bizarre dialogues for Western ears. Finally, the actress is lying on a beach, at day, she dreams of a reunion with her director, then awakes. Maybe everything that came before was a dream too. I won’t judge this film. I repeat: I don’t know sh*t about South Korea. But it’s different to what you expect to see at a European film festival.
Chances to win Berlinale’s Golden Bear Award: No. Just no.
Who was Joaquim? Well, according to background information on Marcelo Gomes’ eponymous film, his full name was Joaquim José da Silva Xavier; aka Tiradentes. He is considered a national hero in Brazil since he initiated the fight for independence from Portugal in the 18th Century. I don’t know about Brazilian history, I’ve never heard of Joaquim. And I’ve learned nothing about him today.
Obviously it’s not enough to be a historic hero, you need to have acted according to today’s knowledge and ethics in all respects. We are thus taught about Joaquim’s (not so historic) opposition to slavery. This is linked with the story of an expedition into the hinterland, searching for gold. Joaquim at this point served in the Portuguese-Brazilian army. The expedition plot reminds of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, but there’s no Kinski around to save the day. His men rebel, while Joaquim won’t abandon the mission until he finds some gemstones at least (whatever they are, those green pebbles). About one hour into the film, you realize, this is not just providing a biographical background, an introduction before the action starts, this is the film. Braveheart wasn’t bad either, was it?
The viewer understands nothing of Joaquim’s personal motives, senses nothing of the looming change in loyalties, right up to the moment when an old man hands him some books to read, and suddenly, Joaquim talks like the freedom fighter he was always supposed to be. Two scenes hint at his bigger importance: The very first, when his bodiless head on a pike tells us about the execution, and much later, when Joaquim takes a bath under a waterfall, and screams. The falling water probably stands for the army he’ll challenge soon. Not in the film, though.
There is another episode instead, about a group of escaped slaves taking him prisoner, before he is released by a former lover. That revolution, they did it first. But Joaquim appears more disappointed with not laying her again, than enthused by their example. The final scene is a dinner in the garden of a revolutionary priest, and now Joaquim talks about his dreams (again: we have no idea, how and why this character changed so suddenly). The priest and his wife - no, cannot be, just a so very distinguished lady – reveal all Europe’s noble refinement, while the democratic revolutionary slurps his chicken aloud. They’ve bred a beast they cannot control. This man will take the step from bookish theory to action. Still, the film is a unfulfilled promise.
Who was Joaquim?
Chances to win Berlinale’s Golden Bear Award: It’s not a 1-7 in a World Cup match at home. But it’s not enough to win the title, either.
----- UPDATE 17 February ----
Hao ji le (Have a Nice Day) is a Mr Long like gangster film from China, only in animation. Not CGI/artificial actors, but good old cartoon style.
Set in contemporary China, where money and audacity are building our future, everyone works on construction sites, and like everywhere in the (film) world, a contractor is also a part time mafia boss. Stolen money passes from one to the other, gangsters chase, and poor guys suffer before the happy end. A painter whose works look like Yue Minjun's appears, if only to be beaten up and tortured (oh those annoying artists...). Add some philosophical insights: “There are three types of freedom: the farmer’s market, the supermarket, and online shopping.”
You might even distinguish Chinese particularities, a speed cam needs to be destroyed, when the photo shows that bag of money – the party grants less privacy than its counterparts in Europe. And then, there are circumstances, you would not expect to find in China: All film characters seem to be related, or know each other by common acquaintances (I have to admit, I lost count of characters, frequently telling myself, “wait, this was the guy who is the second uncle of that one, who... no”). Chinese one child policy started in 1979, and today, there are 1,38 billion of them. They cannot possibly all know each other. Buddhist monks still play a big role in life, another character wears a cross around her neck, and workers discuss, who’s the mightier, the Buddha or God (“both are big bosses”). A street vendor offers a turtle, “for potency, or release it for good karma”. Somebody tells, "spiritual life is all important" – in Red China! Obviously need to adjust my stereotypes there. Or accept Have a Nice Day as a somehow dissident film.
It's rather short, shorter than Mr Long, and there still are superfluous musical/daydream scenes. Have a Nice Day wants to be a real movie, so it needs to be judged as such. And it’s not an outstanding gangster movie, just an average one. Good storytelling is good storytelling, regardless of medium. Of course it can be done with artificial characters, and the future is purely digital, because it’s cheaper, and people always buy, what is advertised as “new”. You will not lose story, you will lose visuals, for the near future at least. Animated images only ever show so much detail you put into it. Director/Animator Liu Jian knows this, therefore he introduces e.g. a fly landing on a face, but there’s infinitely more detail in real life, and in real film. On this last day of the competition, I for the first time noticed how hard it must be, finding twenty four films for a festival competition. You need underdogs to complete the field.
Chances to win Berlinale’s Golden Bear Award: Would be viagra for the Chinese film industry. Maybe invent a Golden Panda, for "special achievements in business"?
Cǎlin Peter Netzer won that Golden Bear in 2013 with Child’s Pose. His new film, Ana mon amour tells a story in retrospection, jumping back and forth in time. In the end, we know, Toma is telling his therapist about a dream he had, and about Ana. We don’t know, is she alive or not, we assume they no longer see each other. They’ve met at university, and married when a child was born. The character of Ana is actually less explored than Toma’s, though the film is supposedly all about her, and her mental illness. About her, but only in her relation to him, to his, and her family. Ana suffers/ed from anxiety and an addiction to pharmaceutical drugs, there was a troubled childhood, but the final trigger is never fully explained. We only know what Toma knows, and at one point, she stops telling him. This is a story about how to deal with a change, even if it’s a change for the better. Because Ana finally recovers with the help of another therapist, and once cured, she becomes independent, and disinterested in the man who always cared for her (though, as he says himself, he never properly loved her). As soon as she no longer needs a caretaker, his role is superfluous.
It’s almost like Love Story (1970) with a mental illness, and a cure. Thank God, Netzer has not just made a film on the glory of psychology. The first therapy fails, a doctor only prescribes different pills, and Toma’s confession to an orthodox priest (an old school therapist) is one of the best scenes. Oh, and there is at least one scene that will make it x rated, if not cut out, not only in the US. Just for the sake of it. “Donne-moi un Câlin, Peter Netzer.”
Chances to win Berlinale’s Golden Bear Award: If there was no Mujer Fantastica, and no On Body and Soul either – why not? The best of the rest.
Competition (Out of competition)
To finish with Berlinale, the last film (though "out of...", I’ll have a say about this later) was the first, everybody in the audience recognized the logos in the opening credits. 21st and Marvel, alright, here we go...
I admit, I’ve never been into Super Hero movies. I watched some on TV, but I never really liked them. I cannot explain why, I love SciFi and horror, I love everything cheap and brainless. But no Superheroes. That’s why I was the one visitor who did not know, Logan is Wolverine. Or why Wolverine is called Wolverine, and not Cat-erine; he has retractable claws. Sorry, I know, many people love this.
I've actually watched a movie of the X-Men franchise before, if only for Sir Patrick Stewart, and I knew it’s about mutants, good ones and bad ones, and bad government agents killing them. In this case, it's the year twenty-twentysomething, and there are only a few left, namely an alcoholic Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) working for Uber and protecting the boss (Sir Patrick Stewart). Also that pale healer/Nosferatu. Blood, explosions, action. A brandnew mutant, an eleven year old girl who’s been told: “acting means to open your eyes as wide as you can, so people'll say, you’re cute”, flees from an evil mutant farm in Mexico to the US, and needs protection. She’ll get it, but not all good guys will survive.
On the opening press conference, the festival director had insisted on the relevance of “political films”. I don’t know what to make of the politics of Logan. On the one hand, she’s Mexican. On the other, they’re farming genetically enhanced super soldiers in Mexico, a wall to keep them out would not be the worst idea. And there’s the “father” topic. Sir Patrick is not the Wolve’s father, but a -figure. That girl has been created by cloning one or two of his cells. Contrary to us being told every day, “father”, “mother”, “man”, “woman” are just evil language, and we must chose as we like, this biological fact makes him her father (they insist on it, it’s important for the story).
See, whether you’re left or right, there’s something for you in Logan. Still, if I want a film to chill out to, I prefer The Bar.
Berlinale, 9-19 February 2017
World of Arts Magazine - contemporary arts criticism