Berlinale Cinematic Highlights at Last!
Perhaps I was lucky when I first attended the Berlin International Film Festival two years ago. 2015 was the year of Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, and Pablo Larraín’s The Club, among others. Unfortunately, this year, of the 25 films I saw, I could count the memorable ones on the fingers of one hand. Instead, much of what I saw was either bland or disastrous (in the latter category, I include Agnieszka Holland’s Spoor).
Still, there were some diamonds in the rough, even if not all films I mention are masterpieces. Below are some of the highlights.
BEST OF THE FEST
1. El Mar La Mar (directors: Joshua Bonnetta, J.P. Sniadecki)
J.P. Sniadecki hails from Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, which consistently pushes the boundaries of nonfiction filmmaking. Joshua Bonnetta is a musician and sound artist making his feature-film debut. The result of their collaboration is a challenging, fascinating, and beautiful work that takes on the illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border, albeit in ways that play more like an avant-garde film than a standard issue documentary.
The first part of this three-part film throws down the experimental gauntlet: It’s a traveling shot of a border fence, but the image is initially blurry and extremely close-in, so the only thing we perceive is the flicker effect created until the camera gradually pulls back and reveals the whole picture. That sense of the abstract eventually made concrete carries through to its extensive middle section, in which 16mm landscape shots and close-ups of objects, taken in the Sonoran Desert, alternate with talking-heads interviews of undocumented immigrants, border-control officers and Arizona residents.
Talking-heads interviews, of course, are the bread and butter of conventional documentaries, but El Mar La Mar imaginatively presents most of these lengthy sound bites against a black screen or a darkly lit image, allowing us to better absorb what these people are saying. Still, Bonnetta and Sniadecki push the film further in its final section, in which the filmmakers present the Sonoran Desert in grainy black-and-white as a female speaker recites a poem by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz that suggests a connection between the poet’s “sun-worn traveler[s]” and the undocumented Mexican immigrants crossing the border to try to make better lives for themselves in the U.S. With this concluding gesture, El Mar La Mar dares to place its very topical subject matter in a transcendently spiritual light.
2. Call Me By Your Name (director: Luca Guadagnino)
As someone who admired Luca Guadagnino’s blissfully overheated directorial touch in I Am Love and, to a lesser extent, in A Bigger Splash, I found it gratifying to see the Italian director cool his melodramatic flourishes in his latest, Call Me By Your Name, while still managing to convey romantic desire with the same trembling erotic force. This is the kind of great leap in dramatic storytelling that Xavier Dolan made with Laurence Anyways, a similarly heartbreaking yet empowering queer romance. It’s also the passionate gay love story that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain should have been: one unafraid of expressing love in all its physical and emotional messiness, even as its two main characters, Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), remain tentative about whether they should consummate the obvious attraction they feel for each other. But Call Me By Your Name is as much a coming-of-age tale as it is a romance, with Guadagnino depicting Elio’s emotional and sexual maturation with uncommon empathy.
As much as I love Hong Sang-soo’s latest film, I am admittedly somewhat hesitant in recommending it to someone who isn’t already fully invested in the Korean auteur’s vision, because it’s quite possible the painfully confessional aspects that moved me so much in On the Beach At Night Alone—especially in light of the recent tabloid scandal involving Hong and the extramarital affair he carried with the film’s star, Kim Min-hee, leading to the dissolution of his marriage—biographical aspects that may well be lost on those coming to his work late. Nevertheless, I believe that most viewers will find something affecting in this film’s somber portrait of a woman trying to move on from an affair that ended badly. There’s always been a melancholy undercurrent in Hong’s film, but that quality has often been mixed in with droll comedy and structural playfulness. In On the Beach at Night Alone, Hong drops the game-playing to present a character’s anguished inner life.
4. The Other Side of Hope (director: Aki Kaurismäki)
For a filmmaker mostly identified with finding deadpan comedy amid lives of quiet despair, Aki Kaurismäki has, with Le Havre and now The Other Side of Hope, been finding pockets of hope as he’s widened his gaze to include stories about refugees in tenuous transition. If anything, though, the Finnish auteur’s latest deepens the optimism that he advanced in Le Havre, articulating a vision of humanity that is warm-hearted yet unsentimental. Kaurismäki believes in people’s capacity of doing good—this shows clearly in the story of a budding middle-aged restaurant entrepreneur Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), who tries to lend a helping hand to Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji). But the filmmaker is also hardly blind to the evils of which men are capable, evident in the violence and the bureaucratic indifference that he unsparingly shows us in this film. And yet, Kaurismäki characteristically refuses to wallow in such horrors, preferring to find humor amidst despair.
5. Green River: The Time of the Yakurunas (directors: Alvaro and Diego Sarmiento)
Green River: The Time of the Yakurunas fits squarely in the ethnographic documentary mold, with Alvaro and Diego Sarmiento painstakingly following the daily lives of a group of indigenous inhabitants in the Peruvian Amazon. But the Sarmientos are engaging in more than just straight-up documentation. Through patient, long takes and immaculate sound design, Green River also works as a temporal and visceral immersion in a slowed-down and profoundly simple way of life that is sure to feel drastically different from what most of us are used to: a lifestyle in which people make do with the natural elements around them, and just generally seem to live for little more than the next day. Watching Green River feels like stepping back into a long-lost period in history; the fact that a world like this still exists in modern-day reality is certainly something to give us a reason for reflection.
The Dinner (director: Oren Moverman)
I can certainly imagine audience members hating the protagonists of Oren Moverman’s extremely polarizing latest film, but the film is just too sharply written and brilliantly acted to wholly dismiss. Moverman certainly recognizes how unpleasant these four people—mentally ill ex-history professor Paul Lohman (Steve Coogan) and his politician brother Stan (Richard Gere), Paul’s coddling wife Claire (Laura Linney) and Stan’s new trophy wife Katelyn (Rebecca Hall)—are in their smugness, self-interest and lack of empathy toward anyone outside of their social bubble. When Paul, early on, expresses his view of his family members as “apes with cell phones,” not much of the behavior the film subsequently shows necessarily challenges that perspective. But while it’d be a stretch to call the film compassionate, Moverman does such a detailed job of painting a whole ecosystem of twisted morals and ruthless justifications that we intuitively understand why these characters act the way they do when they’re all forced to deal with a horrible crime Paul’s son Rick (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) has committed, one that threatens Stan’s political career.
Somniloquies (director: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel)
This is the second of two documentaries at this year’s Berlinale to come out of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, and though its the lesser achievement, there’s still much to admire about it. Perhaps this visual treatment of songwriter Dion McGregor’s infamous dream ramblings should really have been an art installation: The visuals that the two Leviathan directors, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, come up with to illustrate McGregor’s words—blurry examinations of the flesh of people sleeping, amid black backgrounds—are ultimately not quite varied and imaginative enough to sustain the film’s 73 minutes. Nevertheless, the words themselves are fascinating to hear—it boggles the mind that McGregor was able to be so lucid in narrating his dreams—and overall, Somniloquies achieves its intended effect of evoking a waking dream state.
Narratives about drug addicts in love are seemingly a dime a dozen in cinema, so it takes an especially imaginative filmmaker to find a fresh angle to the narrative trope. Ashley McKenzie’s directorial debut Werewolf eventually finds that angle, but she takes her time showing her hand, while she and cinematographer Scott Moore work overtime to keep things off-kilter with odd framings and a highly elliptical storytelling style. But when, about midway through, this study of two addicts struggling to recover from their drug addictions subtly burrows its focus into Vanessa (Bhreagh MacNeil)—who turns out to be the more resilient of the pair, even if Blaise (Andrew Gillis) is more outwardly belligerent and confrontational—Werewolf eventually reveals itself to be, in its own unsentimental way, a love story, albeit one about the limits of love and sacrifice.
Butterfly Kisses (director: Rafael Kapelinski)
Early reviews attempted to tiptoe around it, but since it’s key to explaining what’s so genuinely provocative about Rafael Kapelinski’s debut feature, spoiler alert: Jake’s (Theo Stevenson) big secret is that he’s a pedophile, and Butterfly Kisses is an attempt to explore this fairly inarticulate character’s psychology by inhabiting his mindset while also maintaining some distance from it. Though the film is certainly striking as an aesthetic object—with Nick Cooke’s black-and-white cinematography especially effective at using high-contrast light and shadow to convey Jake’s moral ambiguities—its evocation of a twisted world of sexual hypocrisy is what ultimately sticks in the craw. In Butterfly Kisses, Jake’s forbidden desire is daringly depicted as not just a mental disorder on his part, but the product of a permissive environment that has warped his perspective. Jake’s many male friends are bros to the core, consuming copious amounts of pornography (including, at one point, bestiality) and flagrantly objectifying women. Even with the one teenage girl Jake has some romantic feeling for, though, he witnesses her having sex with a teacher in an abandoned building. And yet pedophilia is the one sexual act that’s reflexively condemned as the worst kind of deviancy possible? No wonder Jake struggles so mightily with his urges. Kapelinski’s great achievement in Butterfly Kisses is to empathize with a sexual predator in a fresh way that feels genuinely dangerous, yet is also insightful and thought-provoking.
Mr. Long (director: Sabu)
Imagine a film that starts out like a Quentin Tarantino talkfest, shifts into a neon-colored version of a Jean-Pierre Melville hitman thriller, and then suddenly becomes a broad family comedy with some drug-rehab drama thrown in for good measure. That’s Mr. Long, the latest film from Japanese auteur Sabu. And while it just misses greatness in a rather shallow conception of the title character—a Taiwanese hitman (Chang Chen, positively Alain Delon-like in his impassivity) who is trapped in a Japanese village after a hit gone wrong—that denies us the deep emotional investment that would have made its ending play more movingly, the film’s unapologetically whiplash changes in genre and emotional temperature make for a nevertheless consistently entertaining experience.