Thursday, March 3, 2011

Berlin Film Festival Report (Part One)

Peter Walsh reports on the 61st Berlinale

Although it’s an A-list festival with a serious competitive section as well as a vast array of other strands showing hundreds of films, the Berlin Film Festival, or Berlinale, doesn’t quite have the same glamour or prestige as Cannes or Venice. Like every major festival today, it panders to the expectations of the Hollywood studios and the mass media by hosting glitzy red-carpet premières, but Berlin has always been considered a serious and sometimes highly political event. You won’t find many Hollywood blockbusters at Berlin, especially in competition, since the studios know they are unlikely to win major prizes.

The closest Berlin came to Hollywood glamour this year was with its opening night film, True Grit, for which directors Joel and Ethan Coen dutifully worked the red carpet with stars Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld. This wasn’t even a world première, since the Coens’ rather splendid adaptation of the Charles Portis novel had been released in the U.S. last December. In fact, the film had been due for release in Europe in January, and it says something about the power of big film festivals that True Grit’s European release was put back just to accommodate a few screenings at Berlin. The festival was no doubt happy to secure such a high-profile and critically acclaimed title, but it’s doubtful that the film itself benefited much from its presence at Berlin.

Berlin’s main competition suffers because many of the best filmmakers prefer to show their work at Cannes in May or Venice in August. Pointedly, some of this year’s most eagerly awaited titles, including Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, are all expected to be bound for Cannes. The Berlinale also has a problem with Sundance, where the vast majority of new independent American movies are unveiled in January, a full month before Berlin’s dates. This year Berlin did a deal with Sundance whereby they shared a small number of competition titles; these included Miranda July’s The Future, a partly German-financed follow-up to 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know.

Miranda July's The Future

July is first and foremost a performance or multimedia artist who dabbles in cinema. This proves to be both her strength and her weakness. The latter is all too evident in July’s cavalier attitude towards storytelling, which means that her films are essentially composed of a series of gags or set-pieces connected by a central idea or artistic conceit. If Me and You and Everyone We Know was all about people trying to make human connections, then the new film is concerned with the struggle to maintain or renew a relationship that’s reached an impasse. July herself and Hamish Linklater play a somewhat flaky thirty-something Los Angeles couple who are dissatisfied with their relationship and their jobs. They should be thinking about having a child but instead they decide to adopt an injured cat they can’t collect from the local animal shelter until it has fully recovered. They spend the thirty-day waiting period trying to reassess and change their lives.

It is typical of the whimsical nature of July’s strategies that the film is narrated by the injured cat, but The Future is ultimately less quirky and mannered than it first appears. As July’s character embarks on a somewhat seedy sexual affair with an older man, the film itself begins to venture into what its feline narrator describes as “the darkness that it is not appropriate to talk about”. In other words, what starts out as a mildly amusing series of sketches illustrating the absurdities of everyday life gradually morphs into a much darker but surprisingly delicate portrait of the vagaries of the human heart.

Yelling to the Sky

Of the other American films in competition, I missed J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call, a star-studded thriller about the recent financial crisis. That left two very different independent productions, Victoria Mahoney’s Yelling to the Sky and Joshua Marston’s The Forgiveness of Blood. The former is an over-familiar social drama that proved unworthy of the ballyhoo surrounding its world première presentation in Berlin. Zoë Kravitz, the beautiful daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet, brought plenty of glamour to the red carpet screening, but the film itself hardly justified all the attention. Kravitz plays 17-year-old New Yorker ‘Sweetness’ O’Hara, who’s bullied at school and whose home life is dominated by an abusive, alcoholic white father and a mentally ill black mother. The bright, resourceful Sweetness decides to toughen up her image by joining forces with the neighbourhood’s unbelievably kind drug dealer and is soon in danger of becoming a hardened bruiser before seeing the light and mending her ways. It’s a hackneyed scenario whose similarity to last year’s Precious only goes to demonstrate the superiority of Lee Daniels’ truly excoriating drama.

The Forgiveness of Blood

Joshua Marston’s The Forgiveness of Blood is a much more adventurous and achieved piece of work. Marston is rare amongst American independent filmmakers in that he looks far beyond U.S. borders for his stories. A former journalist and foreign correspondent, he’s best known to cinemagoers for the low-key drug-smuggling drama Maria Full of Grace. It comes as no surprise to learn that he’s a fan of Ken Loach’s work, which like his own avoids melodrama in favour of a heightened naturalism. With Forgiveness, Marston travelled to Albania to tell the extraordinary story of how the country’s centuries-old laws are still in operation today. The film’s chief protagonists are fairly typical modern teenage siblings whose ambitious plans for the future are thwarted when their father is accused of killing a neighbour in a fight over land rights. With the father in hiding, the Kanun or traditional law dictates that none of the family’s male members may leave the house without being legitimate targets for a revenge killing. Marston is excellent at building tension whilst keeping the melodramatic elements firmly in check. He brings an unfussy, accessible style of filmmaking to bear on an exceptional story shot on authentic locations and featuring fine performances from a mainly non-professional cast speaking their own language.

Read part 2 of this report here.

Peter Walsh
Cinemas Manager

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