London Cinemas and Acquisitions Coordinator Paul Ridd takes a look at some of the highlights screened by the team at the recent Berlin International Film Festival.
Milder weather than usual in Berlin this year. This stood in marked contrast to a line up of films no less austere, serious and shocking than is custom for Berlinale, a festival that has prided itself in recent years on being the most purely Art House international showcase. Almost descending into self-parody – with titles featured in the line up including Kill Your Dog and The End – the festival set its store out early with a slew of documentary films concerning immigration and ongoing global atrocities, with recurring themes in the Dramas including abortion, ageing, sudden death and loneliness.
At times the fest seemed to be almost attempting to outdo the downbeat thematic flavour of Sundance some weeks back – with its farting corpses and terminal cancer patients – and this filtered through a customarily bigger commitment to an avant-garde aesthetic and more challenging films. Returning head programmer Dieter Kosslick shows no signs of commercialising the festival, and the prizes by fest end reflected that principle. The Alfred Bauer Award winner, anyone? Just eight straight hours needed to catch that one.
The Golden Bear winner, searing experimental documentary Fire At Sea crosscut graphic footage of migrants attempting to find sanctuary on the island of Lanpedusa with tranquil images of every day life on the island, particularly focusing in on the picturesque life of a local boy. Steeped in irony and anger, this beautifully shot doc drew huge emotional weight from its contrasts and often very distressing imagery. The film put a powerful case for humane treatment and understanding on this hot topic issue whilst representing a clear commitment to an aesthetic very much its own.
Also in the documentary space, Those Who Jump necessarily adopted a more rough and ready, immediate approach to telling a migrant story as it chronicled, in excruciatingly visceral detail, the experiences of individuals desperate to cross a rigidly policed border in Morocco. Handing over cameras to the migrants themselves, the film showed them to be human, their self-filmed experiences a constant, endless struggle against violence and oppression lived out just on the border of an affluent seaside city.
Vital, urgent filmmaking centred around footage captured by the subjects themselves could also be found in harrowing Phillipine prison doc Curumim, which captured the last few years of a petty drug dealer’s life lived out in a maximum security prison. As much an indictment of the medieval legal and prison system in the country, as an intimate portrait of a deeply flawed man in extreme circumstances, the film ended on such a harrowing note of despair as to be almost unbearable to watch.
In more optimistic mode, Mia Hansen-Løve‘s glorious Thing To Come and André Téchiné’s playful Being 17 flew the flag for France in a particularly strong year for Gallic cinema. Other highlights included Dominik Moll’s melancholy News From Planet Mars and boozy comedy Saint Amour featuring Gerard Depardieu and Benoît Poelvoorde as warring alcoholic father and son.
Things To Come starred Isabelle Huppert on top form as a woman adjusting to life post-divorce and combined the director’s familiarly low-key lyricism with a witty and insightful script about the limitations faced by older women in bourgeois French society. Whilst much has been made of the film’s witty script, perfectly etched scenes and elegant soundtrack, moments that really stood out were the fleeting exchanges Huppert’s Nathalie shared with younger women, who appeared ready to dismiss her as freely as their male counterparts. So whilst the film’s mood of resilient optimism and summery aesthetic felt upbeat, shades of cynicism and ambiguity as to the address of the title shone through, adding depth and colour to this rich and varied film, a fitting follow-up to the excellent Eden (2015).
More straightforwardly optimistic, the Celine Sciamma-scripted Being 17 positively burst with youthful energy and libidinous desire, chronicling the development of an intense sexual relationship between two initially acrimonious teen boys in picturesque provincial countryside. Melodramatic, unapologetically silly and full of beautiful people in beautiful places, the film went down a storm with critics and audiences, seeming likely to break out of an LGBT niche as a feel-good Art House hit.
Less fun was to be found in the form of Terrence Davies’ lavish but bleak A Quiet Passion starring Cynthia Nixon as the doomed American poet Emily Dickinson, while Lav Diaz’s 8 hour experimental epic Lullaby For The Sorrowful Mystery proved hard work on the eyes and rears of even the most hardened cinephiles. Spike Lee’s furiously funny and angry new film Chi-Raq proved a good tonic to the slowness in these and a lot of the more exclusively festival-friendly titles, whilst small indie first features Sand Storm and Alloys both made their mark in the huge programme outside Main Competition, the former a searing drama of female oppression in the mode of Mustang, the latter a quirky and tonally mad character piece about a lonely spy.
A classics section all but completely dedicated to legendary cinematographer Michael Ballhaus provided opportunities to re-explore underrated and forgotten Martin Scorsese epics The Age Of Innocence (1991) and Gangs Of New York (2002). Both flawed and strange, the former in particular benefitted from a beautiful new 4K restoration bringing out its striking visuals, lavish costumes and surprisingly experimental sound mix. The 4K version of forgotten late John Huston character study Fat City also looked gorgeous played large, albeit signalling one of the most purely nihilistic and sour films screened at the festival. Lighter fun could also be found in Robert Redford’s ode to honesty and decency Quiz Show (1994), which, with its fifties TV setting, breakout Ralph Fiennes performance and mood of paranoia surrounding technology seeming more relevant than ever.
All in all a beautifully varied and rewarding set of films screened by the Picturehouse team. We look forward to showing some if not all of these in the UK in the coming months.