Saturday the Berlin Film Festival dispensed its prizes, and the general mood pervading the air was that the docu-style feature “Caesar Must Die” by veteran Italian duo Paolo and Vittorio Taviani was a surprise Golden Bear winner in a weaker than usual Competition year. Last year’s festival was the launchpad for “A Separation” but not a single title in 2012’s line-up garnered anywhere near as much enthusiasm or acclaim. During the festival, Berlinale regular Christian Petzold’s East German melodrama “Barbara,” Swiss filmmaker Ursula Meier’s “Sister,” about a boy living with his jobless sister (Lea Seydoux) near a ski resort, and Miguel Gomes’ astonishing “Tabu” had all been tipped for Berlin’s top prize, but each was recognised instead in other categories by Mike Leigh’s international jury: Petzold with the Silver Bear for Best Director, Meier with a Special Award Silver Bear, and “Tabu” with the Alfred Bauer prize for a work of particular innovation.
Elsewhere, Nikolaj Arcel’s well-received Danish period piece “A Royal Affair” landed the Best Actor prize for Mikkel Boe Folsgaard’s brilliant turn as an emotionally unstable King Christian VII and Best Script for Arcel and co-writer Rasmus Heisterberg; Best Actress went to Rachel Mwanza for the Congolese civil-war drama “Rebelle (War Witch)”; Lutz Reitemeier’s cinematography took the Outstanding Artistic Contribution award for Wang Quan’an’s Chinese epic “White Deer Plain”; and the Grand Prix Silver Bear went to Bence Fliegauf’s “Just The Wind.” Of Berlin’s many other juries, the Best First Feature Award (and its 50,000 Euro prize) went to Boudewijn Koole’s “Kauwboy” while the gay-themed Teddy Awards opted for Ira Sachs’ Sundance entry “Keep The Lights On” as Best Feature.
Between Shooting Stars jury duties and numerous interviews, I didn’t see as many titles as I would have liked this year. Of those I did catch, I’d give “A Royal Affair” the best shot at making a post-festival splash. Heralded even before it screened, “A Royal Affair” more than lived up to expectations, a beautifully-crafted costume drama outlining an extraordinary true chapter in European history in which a German doctor (Mads Mikkelsen) rose to a position of immense power in the 18th-century Danish royal court thanks to his friendship with Folsgaard’s aforementioned king, only to be undone by an affair with the queen (captivating Swedish newcomer Alicia Virkander). Arcel doesn’t break any new ground but nor does he put a foot wrong, bringing imagination, intrigue and intelligence to the compelling story, and playing out the Enlightenment-thinking doctor’s rise and fall against the backdrop of religious conservatives fighting to stop the tide of progress sweeping them down history’s drain.
“Tabu” is a Portuguese oddity that was certainly mesmeric in places and had cineastes salivating, but judging from the response of the paying public with whom I watched it, will baffle as many as it pleases. Featuring painterly black-and-white compositions, a Colonial-metaphor narrative and a dialogue-free second half (characters’ mouths move but we only hear their story in narration), it comes steeped in dream-like nostalgia and possesses a wickedly dry sense of humour as epitomised by a prologue showing a melancholic explorer sacrificing himself to a crocodile (a recurring beast from start to finish) and somnambulant but amusing first-half exchanges between three older women in a Lisbon tower block.
Billy Bob Thornton has avoided stepping behind the camera since his bitter experiences with Miramax on “All The Pretty Horses” and I’m sad to say that the rust (and lack of confidence) shows with “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” a Southern-fried comedy-drama hampered by an unfocused and formulaic culture-clash narrative. That’s not to say there’s no enjoyment to be had. Set in 1969 Alabama, it features a clan of unhappy eccentrics who discover their estranged matriarch has died and her new, English family are bringing the body back to bury as per her wishes.
With a star-packed cast including Robert Duvall, John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick and Frances O’Connor, pithy exchanges are guaranteed and the script has its share of fun, boisterous sequences. But it also contains a few howlers, not least a public squabble between Hurt and his stiff-upper-lipped son (Ray Stevenson) and an excruciating bit where Thornton’s emotionally stunted middle son masturbates furiously as O’Connor jiggles about in the nude reciting “The Charge Of The Light Brigade.” During moments like these, “Sling Blade” feels like a very distant memory. Thornton’s latest arrived in Berlin without a distributor and mostly negative reviews won’t help its cause, but the great cast should help it find a home somewhere.