Hemming and hawing for weeks while watching infection numbers surge this winter, weighing the likely pleasure of watching Claire Denis’s new film versus the possible infection that could result, I ultimately decided that the pandemic situation was too precarious to travel to the Berlin International Film Festival. My caution in not attending the Berlinale reflected a moment when every other email or video call I saw announced a friend, family member, or acquaintance was sick; meanwhile, the festival insisted that this edition’s press access, unlike January’s Rotterdam or Sundance festivals, required journalists to attend in-person. Such limitations makes it a challenge, particularly in large programs like Berlin’s, to explore the breadth of the selection, and unfortunately has the effect of diminishing attention towards smaller films and funneling coverage towards big-name and more commercially alluring premieres.
Instead of traveling, I begged, borrowed, but did not steal screener links to view an unusual slice—partially targeted, partially of happenstance of access—of the festival remotely. Unlike the fully virtual festivals of January, my viewing of Berlin’s program created a strange sense of limbo, as I watched the same movies that others did at the festival an ocean plus many countries removed, but safe in my home rather than risking the precarious festival rhythm of going to and from the cinema, the cafe, the hotel, and back again. Some buzz reached its tendrils out of Twitter and stray emails, but the communal experience of the festival—including navigating the challenging logistical hoops of our COVID era—was happening elsewhere. Mine was a phantom, tandem Berlinale: eclectic and lonely, but secure.
Yet precarity, a state in which many already existed well before the pandemic, still seemed to be everywhere: an idea both stealthily and boldly expanding influence and impact. Attempts to ignore or avoid such fragility falter at a glance, if not out the window then at a headline or mobile phone—and certainly at the cinema screen. Such precarity could be found across some of the best films at the festival. Without as stringent commercial requirements upon them, festival films generally are more liberated to address issues of poverty and struggle rather than forced to tell stories that pretend little in the world could be deeply amiss. However, this liberation also means that too often festival movies wallow in easy misery, cheap gravity, and hollow provocation, rather than earn their poignancy and indeed pleasure of viewing through insight and imperative. The winner of the Golden Bear, Alcarràs, underscored this: A sun-ripened portrait of a Catalonian family being pushed off the farmland they’ve worked for decades, director Carla Simón’s perspective on this loss of lifestyle, heritage, and income is gently observed and easeful. It doesn’t mire the story in its inherent sorrow but makes it lucid by opening it to the sun.
A similar lightness, dosed with actual levity, could be found in Alejandro Moguillansky and Luciana Acuña’s The Middle Ages. In this comedy of economics and isolation, partners Moguillansky and Acuña play themselves—a director and choreographer—stuck in their flat during a pandemic lockdown in Argentina. They contend not just with a sense of self upon losing opportunities to do their work—to create their art—but upon losing their finances, too. While Moguillansky awkwardly tries to direct Beckett via Zoom and Acuña takes and gives split-screen classes to little success, the couple’s daughter, Cleo, begins secretly selling her parents belongings out their front door to fund a much-desired telescope. In this funny and clever snapshot of fiction that feels 99% based in reality, Moguillansky and Acuña, who share directing credits, find in their household microcosm the humorous absurdity but also underlying shadows of the financial and existential crises currently incubating in so many homes, communities, and nations.
One question this Argentine film asks is what an artist is if they cannot produce art. Poet, the new film from Darezhan Omirbayev, the Kazakh master who has made far too few films in the last decade, asks what is an artist if no one wants their art. It tells the story of a contemporary poet (Yerdos Kanayev) whose work goes unheralded in the midst of a vapid culture represented by such horrors as children playing video games, MMA fights on TV, luxury SUVs, and the cacophony of electronics superstores. His story is twinned with that of the fate of Makhambet Otemisuly, a national poet of the 19th century whose anti-Russian activities may have led to his murder, and whose unwieldy legacy we follow over the decades as his body is later exhumed and the Soviets try to determine how—or whether—to honor him. Told in Omirbayev’s characteristically deadpan style that beautifully balances the sad and droll, this is the kind of sensitive film whose greatest crisis is when the poet is commissioned to write a book in honor of a rich factory owner, but has his doubts. In the film’s funniest yet most heartbreaking scene, he is invited by a small town’s cultural center to recite poetry, but finds the auditorium empty—even the students and soldiers required to attend skipped out. But one audience member showed up: a woman who professes her love of his work in a stammering, deeply moving speech. Poet is an old-fashioned film of the melancholy solitude of the unrecognized male artist, placing a crotchety exasperation with pop-commercial culture in a historical continuum with the decades of ambivalence surrounding great artists of the past. Omirbayev’s spare style crystallizes such a dislocated existence, in which we find a somewhat predictable but nonetheless touching lament for the need of a culture to find sustenance in art, and to support that lifeblood by helping artists to live and encouraging them to create.
There are no artists in Park Song-yeol’s Hot in Day, Cold at Night, but the film’s admirably banal married couple, played by director Park and his co-writer, Won Hyang-ra, are also teetering on the edge of society, both struggling to find full-time work and living a paycheck-to-paycheck existence, taking out gig employment in food delivery, substitute teaching, and proxy driving for wealthy evening drinkers. Appropriate to this theme, the modest production is little adorned and all the better for it: Park and Won’s unabashed story is made with considerable observation and sensitivity to both the details of low income households and the tension it places on the relationships within them. Like Poet, the film culminates in a small and dry but pointed decision, in this case whether after a financial betrayal the man should lash out in revenge and exasperation. Dosed with a welcome amount of awkward humor and well-carried by the quiet but telling performances by the director and writer, Hot in Day, Cold at Night is a gently sad but touching and humane portrait of people trying to make ends meet, both as separate individuals and as a shared experience in a relationship.
How did we all get here, you might ask? Cyril Schäublin’s impressive second feature, Unrest, may have the answer. It offers a portrait of a small Swiss village caught at a decisive point of capitalism in the 19th century: On the one hand, the industrialization of watchmaking (this being Switzerland, of course) and the imposition of precise time-keeping on production, wages, and the livelihood of the working class; and on the other, the new possibilities of communism and anarchism circulating around Europe at the time. Boldly telling a story of groups and ideas and not one with conventional protagonists, Schäublin oscillates between close-ups of a wide-ranging cast, wonderfully fetishistic period details of watchmaking, telegraphs, and clock punching, and long shots that impress the factory managers, the laborers, the townspeople, and a radical cartographer visiting from Russia into frescos against the landscape and buildings. Playful and intriguing, it admirably finds a way to visualize a crisis of politics and industry neither as a melodrama nor an essay film but rather as the kind of circulating world of interlocking relationships one might find in films by Jacques Tati or Robert Altman.
After looking to the past it seems most fruitful to point to the future, in which we find Dry Ground Burning, a nearly unclassifiable Brazilian film from Adirley Queirós and Portuguese director Joana Pimenta. Set in the impoverished outskirts of Brasilia, it imagines a pirate gasoline operation led by Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado), who is helped by her half-sister, Léa (Léa Alves da Silva), after she is released from jail. Or perhaps Léa joins the oily, clandestine operation before jail and then reunites with Chitara afterwards—it is difficult to say, as Dry Ground Burning’s story, some of which is filmed at night in a ramshackle futurist fortress out of Mad Max, seems to exist in the past, present, and future all at once. Queirós’s last feature, Once There Was Brazilia (2017), which was photographed by Pimenta, staged a science-fiction assassination story in a present-day Brazil, and his and Pimenta’s new film goes even further, ping-ponging subtly in time and casting non-actors and incorporating their stories into a sprawling, ungainly, but truly bold mixture of genre touchstones, including gangster fantasy, urban study, and documentary portraiture. Much like Brazilia, it is baggy and overlong, but it is also generous and explorative, granting these Brazilian slums and their inhabitants struggling with the allure of and proximity to criminal prosperity, the threats of the Bolsonaro presidency, increasingly militarized policing, and an ever-spreading prison system, a space to express themselves and elaborate on their lives and their fantasies. These are “festival film” subjects transfigured into radical cinema: abrasive, collaborative, challenging, and fantastical. Its very form suggests transformative hope for the dire subjects it urgently reveals.