When a film festival disappoints, as the Berlinale has this year, you find yourself adopting a tone of consolation when speaking to your fellow attendees, like the friendly bartender with the mournful drunk: "Why the long face, chum?" And like that bartender, you hear much the same tales of woe repeated again and again: no films worth buying/programming/seeing; no point in hanging around; nothing to show for all those expenses. "I'm just sick of sitting through things that are OKAY," one Berlin veteran complained. "You don't feel angry. You don't feel exhilarated. You just think, well, there goes another hundred minutes of my life. And for what? This mediocre piece of shit? Why did I bother?"
To my mind, the tone of this year's Berlin International Film Festival was set on Wednesday afternoon, when a friend, whose short film was screening as part of the Generations programme, was rung up by the festival's transportation department to be informed that there would not, as had previously been agreed, be a car to take him, his cast and his crew to their screening. Instead, the vehicle had been requisitioned to transport sixteen cases of Kabbalah-sanctified water across town to Madonna's screening.
There's nothing wrong, per se, with premiering Madonna's new movie (which I didn't see, no force on heaven or earth -- no, not even in the Kabbalah -- being strong enough to make me give a fuck about anything to do with Madonna; but which, I am told, is slightly less of a car-wreck than was expected). And there's nothing wrong, per se, with having the Rolling Stones on your red carpet on opening night. Every film festival, after all, must court the attentions of the press, if only in order to please their sponsors. But when the rest of your programme fails to measure up -- and this year's most definitely has not -- such plays at populism stop looking like the gilding on the frame, and begin instead to resemble the polish on a turd.
Speaking of which: I mentioned Brazil's competition entry "Elite Squad" only in passing last time, but the overwhelming ugliness of that film has stayed with me, not just for its rank misogyny, dismaying though that was (women, we learned, are either weak and liberal, or sluttish, greedy and stupid), but also for its genuinely fascist sensibility -- never more evident than when one of the cops accuses a student of being scum, "like the whores, the pimps, the abortionists ..." Er, excuse me? Since when did Mike Huckabee start scripting action-thrillers?
Albertina Carri's "La Rabia" began with a sobering caption: "The animals in this film," it read, "lived and died as they normally would." The audience seemed to draw little comfort from this assurance. And sure enough, a few moments later, a teenage boy was slamming a sack filled with weasels against a tree trunk, before tossing it into a lake; as we watched, something struggled feebly within the burlap, and then the waters closed over it.
By the time I walked out, more out of boredom than disgust, the body-count had swelled to include a pen filled with chickens, a sheep, one decidedly unfortunate rabbit, and a massive sow, thrashing on a table as it bled to death, and the film was starting to resemble a video game in which your avatar darts hither and thither around the screen, slaughtering any lower vertebrate that happens to cross its path.
An American friend neatly encapsulated the film's problem: made in Argentina, it clearly sought to follow in the tradition of Lisandro Alonso's "La Libertad" and Lucrecia Martel's "La Cienega" -- but it wasn't as spare as the former or as memorably baroque as the latter, so instead of seeming innovative, it felt merely monotonous. By far its greatest coup, though, was its feral young protagonist, an eight-year-old girl with a frankly terrifying stare. (That opening caption should have read, "No eyebrows were plucked during the making of this film.")
After a splendid 2007, the festival's Forum section this year has proved a disappointment - its one standout, among the narrative features, "Summer Book" (Tatil Kitabı), a Turkish debut from Seyfi Teoman, which treated small-town ennui and familial discord in the understated, humane manner of Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
The official selection, too, has been lackluster: Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky" has its admirers; Philippe Claudel's "I've Loved You So Long" turned me fairly rigid with boredom; but Andrzej Wajda's out-of-competition "Katyn", about the massacre of thousands of Polish officers in the spring of 1940, long suppressed by the Soviets (who blamed it, anyway, on the Nazis), proved his best work in almost two decades. An intensely personal work for the director -- whose father, Jakub, was among the victims of Katyn -- its final sequence, depicting the massacre as a kind of grimly methodical slaughterhouse, ranks among the finest sequences he's ever filmed.
One of the odder Competition selections was Antonello Grimaldi's "Quiet Chaos", which starred Nanni Moretti as a high-flying media executive attempting to deal with the sudden death of his wife, and to raise his young daughter -- his idea of good parenting taking the form of a sudden absence from his office, to wait creepily outside her school all day. The action was kept mainly to the park in which he sits, which ensured an air of stagy contrivance. But then, out of nowhere, came a sex scene of considerable candor, and the image of Moretti's ass, thrusting away -- arguably the most unwelcome self-exposure by an actor since William H. Macy in "The Cooler".
The film ended with another executive (Roman Polanski, in a surprise cameo) arriving in his limousine to offer him a major promotion, his daughter reaffirming her adoration, and what appeared to be the most beautiful girl in the world (Polish-born model Kasia Smutniak) falling hopelessly in love with him -- and so it was not altogether surprising to discover that Signor Moretti wrote the script himself. Presumably in the Director's Cut the Swedish Academy will turn up en masse to award him a Nobel Prize and Radiohead will call, begging him to replace Thom Yorke...
Personally, I hope Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" walks away with the Golden Bear, not only because it's a masterpiece, but because it exemplifies precisely the virtues a Berlin- or Cannes-winner is supposed to possess: a genuinely individual vision, allied to extraordinary craftsmanship. It's the work of a real filmmaker: someone utterly fluent in their chosen medium. And as such, a rarity on today's festival circuit, in Berlin and elsewhere.
[Shane Danielsen is the former Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival and now lives and writes in Berlin.]
indieWIRE's coverage of the 2008 Berlinale is available in iW's special Berlin section.Elit