The annual state-of-the-Berlinale assessments usually appear after the Bears have been awarded, but this year the lineup has looked so anemic that a handful of pieces asking, to borrow a title from Jens Balzer's sarcasm-drenched ditty in the Berliner Zeitung, "What's wrong with the Berlinale?," have run on or just before yesterday, when the festival opened with Joel and Ethan Coen's True Grit. Most will agree that the film is worthy of the slot — might as well count me in, too, though I was surprised by how very conventional it is for a Coen brothers film — but the fact that it'll be in theaters here in Germany in just two weeks takes the zing out of an A-status festival's opening. (Although, to be fair, we might remember that the last edition of Cannes opened with Robin Hood, a lesser film than True Grit by a long shot, just days before Ridley Scott's movie infested theaters around the globe; at any rate, True Grit has also opened in the UK today and, for a sampling of British reviews, you might turn to Nigel Andrews (Financial Times, two out of five stars), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 4/5; see, too, Will Self's consideration of the Coens overall) and Sukhdev Sandhu (Telegraph, 3/5).)
For those who read German, the two "What's up, Berlinale?" pieces I'd recommend at the outset are Ekkehard Knörer's for Perlentaucher and Rolf Lautenschläger for die taz. The gist of both is that the festival has lost its profile. We know what Cannes is about ("Cannes is King," writes Ekkehard), what Sundance stands for, Locarno, the Viennale, SXSW, what have you, and even Venice is on the up-and-up under director Marco Müller. The Berlinale tried being the "political festival" for a while but has since wandered aimlessly away from even that vague notion. The problem, as both writers see it, is festival director Dieter Kosslick. Lautenschläger in particular will grant the man his qualities: the stars like him; Mayor Klaus Wowereit, head of the governing coalition of social democrats and democratic socialists, considers the perpetually red-scarfed charmer an asset to the city-state; and his blunt wit plays well in the media. Let the man carry on in that capacity (after all, we have no choice; his contract's been renewed through 2013), as head and face of this sprawling and ungainly enterprise. But can he not leave the programming of the Competition to a more cinephilic team, as so many have asked out loud over the past several years?
Expanding the traditional festival preview to address this predicament, Ekkehard stresses that it's precisely because the Competition lineup looks as if it were pieced together from what was left on the table after filmmakers with potentially substantive projects have either gone ahead and shown them at Sundance (Miranda July) or are simply waiting a couple of months for Cannes (Terrence Malick?) we should not overlook the other strands. The Generation program, for example, "has for years been one of the most excellently curated programs of the festival." Still, for the short term, that is, from now through February 20, if Paula Markovitch's The Prize (El Premio) is any indication, there's reason to hope for a few encouraging discoveries in that Competition lineup.
Markovitch co-wrote the screenplays for Duck Season (2004) and Lake Tahoe (2008), but in her feature debut as a director, her style differs essentially from Fernando Eimbcke's. Both directors will linger on a scene, and then the next, and the next, and so on, but there's far more minute business and activity within Markovitch's frames. The second immediately recognizable difference is in the palette. While Eimbcke has worked with stark contrasts (black and white in Duck Season and color in Lake Tahoe), The Prize is all muted grays, tans and matted blues — but without ever slipping into muddiness. There's a crispness to this overcast world that's only rarely interrupted by sudden alerts: a yellow door or a single ray of sun (albeit far off in the distance, outside, seen through a window from a dark interior). None of the available stills, by the way, are at all true to the actual look of the film.
The Prize belongs to seven-year-old Cecilia Edelstein, played with remarkable confidence by Paula Galinelli Hertzog, in nearly every way imaginable. I saw it cold and noted only later in Markovitch's synopsis that this "is an autobiographical story," a little factoid that clicked loud. The camera rarely rises above Cecilia's head and becomes rambunctious when Cecilia's feeling rambunctious, somber when Cecilia's down. We only learn about the nature of the danger she and her mother are facing as she does; questions remain open until Cecilia is just able to begin to comprehend the answers: Why are the two of them living out of suitcases in an abandoned house — more of a shack, really — on some coast somewhere? Where are we, anyway? What year is it? Why do they bury books? We know Cecilia is supposed to say, "My dad sells curtains and my mom is a housekeeper," but why? Answers are few and far between, but as they come, and as the reality of the threat — she can't, of course, know that it would eventually be given a name, the Dirty War — takes on heft and weight, the soundtrack rises as fear and sadness would in a young girl.
Two notes. First, Markovitch has done some very fine work here with the children in the cast. Besides Cecilia, there's a classroom full of them and the naturalness of their performances is winning, all the more so for those few split-second moments when one of them steals a glance at the camera. I admire Markovitch's decision to leave those moments in. Secondly, at times, between sequences, the last few moments of one scene will slip out of focus before cutting to the next; the consistency of Markovitch's effective aesthetic choice here is reflected even in the opening credits, when a name will appear out of focus, sharpen and lose focus again before next names appears — out of focus.
BERLINALE NOTES, 2/11
"They have deprived me of seeing the world for twenty years. I hope that when I am free, I will be able to travel in a world without any geographic, ethnic, and ideological barriers, where people live together freely and peacefully regardless of their beliefs and convictions." The festival publishes an open letter from Jafar Panahi.
IndieWIRE unveils its "Complete Guide to the Competition."
"Queer cinema is stronger than ever, but how mainstream can it become before it loses its identity?" Hannah Pilarczyk talks with Wieland Speck, head of the Panorama section, for Spiegel Online.
"The Weinstein Company has taken US rights to Ralph Fiennes's directorial debut Coriolanus, which is due to unspool in Competition at the Berlinale Monday." Stuart Kemp has more in the Hollywood Reporter. Anne Thompson has news on more acquisitions.
Maggie Lee: "The crisscrossed fates of more than 20 characters who live in the same residential estate and who are connected by a series of murders in the 278-minute Heaven's Story form a Japanese Decalogue that meditates on crime and punishment — a theme that underlines this anthology of murder, avarice, adultery, revenge, atonement, love and parenthood. Pink film master Takahisa Zeze's opus may not reach Krzysztof Kieslowski's level of intellectual or moral rigor, nevertheless, its grandiose structure, vividly captured locations and some stunning visuals compensate for the hazily rendered social milieu and indifference toward characters' motives and inner world."
Also: "A crime thriller about a nasty gang war ignited by a fuel crisis in Congo, Viva Riva! never runs out of gas. Driven by its charismatic upstart gangster protagonist Riva, the film is one joyride that knows it will careen into a spectacular crash. Djo Tunda wa Munga captures the particular vibe released by this mixture of carpe diem and self-destructive instinct." Saw it and agree with just about everyone else who's seen it as well, including Danny: This one is a gas.
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