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Berlinale's Mixed Bag, and then Some Diamonds in the Rough: Berlin Critic's Notebook

By Brian Brooks | Indiewire February 13, 2009 at 4:11AM

You get bored. Bored with saying, my god, how awful was that? Or: did you see 'X?' what a stinker. Because you didn't see 'X,' didn't have to sit through it, to have to accept or reject it, and with any luck, you never will.
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You get bored. Bored with saying, my god, how awful was that? Or: did you see 'X?' what a stinker. Because you didn't see 'X,' didn't have to sit through it, to have to accept or reject it, and with any luck, you never will.

I could tell you, for instance, why Uli Lohmmel's "Absolute Evil" was (and I say this as a statement of fact, not as hyperbole) very possibly the worst ten minutes of any film I've ever seen ... but what would be the point? For one thing, I lack the simple critical vocabulary to describe its simple, shot-for-shot shittiness: it cannot be described - it must be experienced. For another, it's dull to revisit something I've already consigned, in my head, to the dustbin of history. Dull for me, and for you.

Likewise Theo Angelopoulos's "The Dust of Time", with its awful, Google Translation English dialogue and reams of stagey exposition, and the presiding sense of a once-great filmmaker descending into incoherence and empty affectation. But that's just depressing, because I loved and admired so many of his films while I was growing up (and anyone who hasn't seen "The Travelling Players" or "Voyage to Cythera" really, really should - they're astonishing), and this one just made me feel like crying.

I'm happier hymning the handful of good-to-great films Berlin offered up in 2009, however much they were outnumbered by the noteworthy bad. "Blame is safer than praise," said Emerson, and he was undoubtedly correct. But let's try to accentuate the positive, shall we? For a change?

Like 1961's "The Story of the Flaming Years", which screened in the festoval's 70mm "Bigger Than Life" retrospective: a stunning WWII drama from director Julia Solnceva, and scripted by her husband, the great Aleksandr Dovzhenko, whose majesty announced itself from the very first shot: a Soviet infantryman, his face lit by the same expression of fervent certitude he would wear, unblinking, for the following 90 minutes, delivering a monologue to camera about the enduring greatness of International Communism. Meanwhile, the camera pulled back to reveal that he was standing before a semi-destroyed Brandenburg Gate, and the smouldering ruins of Berlin. But it wasn't this devastation that impressed most; nor was it the columns of defeated Nazi soldiers being marched away, hundreds of extras visible at the very edge of the frame. No, it was this fact that, thanks to the sheer immensity of the 70mm projection, it all appeared to be happening in 1:1 scale, right before our eyes.

The film's glories can hardly be overstated: every sequence - indeed almost every individual shot - displayed extraordinary invention and awesome pictorial beauty: from the fever-dream of a wounded soldier (in which he's borne, in absolute silence, through a partly-submerged forest on a barge, like Arthur being ferried to Avalon), to a scene of lovers reunited on the slopes of a tall hill, at night and in long-shot. While, in the far distance, the River Danube glittered like a constellation - an image reminiscent of Michael Powell at his most magical.

After this masterpiece, most everything else was doomed to seem impoverished by comparison. But out of nowhere, a late competition entry, "Katalin Varga", surprised and impressed in more or less equal measure. Of weirdly uncertain provenance (Hungarian actors, Romanian locations, an expatriate British director), its plot was simple: after her husband learns his wife had been raped in the past, the eponymous Katalin takes her son - the child of the union - and leaves her village, seeking revenge against the men who wronged her.

The fact that she chooses to do so by horse-and-cart, though the film is set in the present day, should give some indication of the timelessness of this particular story, which played out like a cross between Bergman's "The Virgin Spring," and the films of France's Philippe Grandrieux. But it had a blunt sort of force, and steadfastly refused to speak easy truths about human nature. By far the most impressive entry in the competition, it will hopefully receive its due reward from the jury. Hopefully.

A scene from Ivy Ho's Claustrophobia. Image courtesy of the Berlin International Film Festival.

Outside, moments after that screening, came reports that Berlinale director Deiter Kosslick had, at a meeting the previous day, declared himself "infuriated" by the general negativity of the press this year - by all accounts, a Variety mid-fest report had especially riled him - and wondered why these pesky critics bothered to come, if only to make the same carping complaints every February?

For the record, we were mostly asking ourselves much the same question (More than one journalist had told me they were frightened to write too negatively on the festival for a second or third time, for fear their editors would decide, next year, that it was a waste of resources, and not send them). The fact is, those criticisms remain the same each year because they're valid each year. The Competition IS too big. It DOES lack a sense of direction or purpose. The solution is not simple, but some steps can certainly be taken: were Kosslick to cut the number of films in contention for the Golden Bear - to, say, sixteen - and make more of the "Berlinale Special" section (or alternatively, devise another, altogether new strand), he'd be doing much to counter the most persistent complaints.

As a result, I have great fondness for the Panorama section of the Berlinale. By far the gay-est section in an already gay-friendly event, its glittery fabulousness stands as a spangly corrective to the po-faced acetisicism of the Forum, the mercenary zeal of the European Film Market. Venturing into Panorama is a little like finding Truman Capote holding court among a convention of bank managers.

As a result, however, one occasionally has a feeling more typical to gay fests - that the sexual orientation of the work too often takes precedence over its actual worth. I remember being astonished, when the section premiered Giuseppe Piccioni's backstage drama "La Vita che Vorrei" a few years ago, that the film charted the lifespan of an exclusively heterosexual relationship. You almost expected longtime section chief Weiland Speck to introduce it apologetically. ("Meine damen und herren... I'm not sure how this one sneaked through. I'm so sorry. But, to make you feel more comfortable, we've spliced some fisting into the third reel...")

This year, however, the straights mostly let us down. Julie Delpy's "The Countess" was stymied by some uncertain acting - not least, Delpy's own - pedestrian plotting, and a Europudding muddle of accents. Sophie Fillieres' "Un Chat un chat" (AKA "Pardon My French") started very well, with Chiara Mastroianni as a kind of female Buster Keaton, a morosely impassive neurotic at odds with the world, but lost momentum as it went on. A pity, because the first half-hour was hysterically funny, in a deadpan sort of way.

And "Claustrophobia", the debut feature from Hong Kong director Ivy Ho, boasted an intriguing premise (albeit one borrowed wholesale from Harold Pinter's drama "Betrayal") as a clandestine office romance between a married executive and a bright young woman is told backwards, from their recriminatory breakup through to their flirtatious beginnings. But in place of torrid passion, we were treated to endless scenes of awkward silence between these two badly mismatched people, who never seemed to generate any onscreen chemistry, much less actually fuck. The film looked ravishing, thanks for the most part to the camerawork of the great Taiwanese cinematographer Pin Bing Lee, Hou Hsiao-hsien's longtime DOP. But rarely has extra-marital sex seemed so perfunctory or unrewarding.

But Panorama's real highlight was the film perhaps truest to its own, outsider nature: Julian Hernandez's "Raging Sun, Raging Sky," a 191-minute, B&W Mexican reverie on homosexual desire that rewarded those with the patience to submit to it. Recalling, at times, such queer landmarks as Genet's "Un Chant d'Amour" and Ron Peck's "Nighthawks" and even Gus Van Sant's "Mala Noche," it demonstrated with almost every scene not only its maker's fluent command of the medium, his unerring compositional eye, but also a remarkable sensuality, a feel for the textures of flesh and fabric and concrete, and for the quiet, hidden places in which desire may be sated. At once urgent (sex is very much the engine of this drama), and weirdly endistanced (courtesy of its capital-A arthouse technique), it offered a kind of meditation on what the American novelist Samuel R. Delany once called "the splendor and misery of bodies and cities" - one that built by slow stages to a devastating final hour. If there was a discovery to made at Berlin this year, this was it.

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