In her fourth posting from the Berlin Film Festival, foreign correspondent Meredith Brody reveals her other profession: food critic.
I meet Telluride Film Festival director Gary Meyer at a 9:30 a.m. screening of La Bocca del Lupo (The Mouth of the Wolf), a strange, poetic little film that begins and ends with silent found footage of long-ago Genova, dreamily spends time in a rather disreputable bar, and achieves nirvana during a long sequence where the love story between a Sicilian tough guy and a deep-voiced transsexual that began in prison is laid out for us in their own words. It seems even shorter than its announced 75 minute running time.
Meyer, an old Festival hand full of strategies and shortcuts, leads me through the adjacent shopping Arkaden in search of takeout, settling on a Chinese shrimp stir-fry that proves to be exactly the right accompaniment for the European Film Market screening we go to of Once a Gangster. We’re lured in by an ad that reads “from the team that brought you Infernal Affairs,” a Hong Kong movie we both love, but this cheaply and clumsily made comedy about dueling gangsters, neither of whom want to take over a gang, is nothing like it, though I do enjoy the fact that one of the gangsters prefers cooking to gunplay and runs a chain of excellent restaurants. (The other, fresh out of prison, wants to study the economic philosophy of Milton Friedman at Hong kong University.) The Market, a parallel universe to the Berlinale, is where film rights are sold for worldwide distribution, and has its own complicated and alluring schedule not open to the casual festival-goer.
Market screenings, too, have their own internal logic: buyers come and go constantly, popping in for a few minutes and leaving if what they see doesn’t grab them, a fact that irritates us at our next stop, a Market screening of a Romanian film, Eu Cand Vreau Sa Fluier, Fluier (If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle) that is also appearing at the Festival in competition. It’s a dense, intense movie, mostly acted by non-professionals, set inside a juvenile prison, where the threat of his mother taking his young brother to Italy with her sends a taciturn young man within days of his release after four years of incarceration into furious and heart-breaking action. (Buyers also are more prone to check their electronic devices, leading Gary to suggest to one man near us that one screen at a time is sufficient.) The theater is designed in such a way that exits and entrances are forced to parade in front of the screen, obscuring subtitles and leaking light into the room when the door is pulled open and banged shut. There is so much traffic that it feels a bit like being in a pinball machine. It’s a testament to the movie that it manages to hold our attention despite all the action swirling around us.
Afterwards in the lobby we run into Dan Talbot, the head of New Yorker Films, for 44 years distributor of the cream of foreign and independent films, which closed last year; Piers Handling, the CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival; and David Ansen, longtime reviewer for Newsweek who’s the new artistic director of the Los Angeles Film Festival. Everybody seems to have liked La Bocca del Lupo, which has won several prizes on the Festival circuit. I find it infinitely more poetic than the curious animated sequences of Howl.
Gary and I part ways. I head off to the Berlinale Palast for the gala screening of Zhang Yimou’s San Qiang Pai An Jing Qi (A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop), which Festival stalwart Zhang has described as a remake of the Coen brother’s Blood Simple. More than one person has told me that they didn’t last through its press screening, but I go into the mouth of the wolf anyway. I have to tediously trudge up and down the Palast stairs a couple of times because for the first time ushers at its doors are searching our bags and forcing people to check any food or drink, even if we promise not to consume any of it. Tired and cranky, I just want to sit down. My mantra during such minor Festival irritations (as with the manically active Market screening) is “we really love movies.”
I’m told when I return to my seat that this policy was instituted after a patron threw up at their seat the day before, an unfortunate event that I believe could occur long after any tainted food was consumed. What the hell. Alas, I should have trusted my informants. I love a bravura sequence near the start of the film in which hand-made noodles are gracefully thrown into the air like enormous pizzas – when the noodles are finally cut and thrown into bowls, the audience applauds. But the extremely stylized film is noisy, frenetic, over-the-top, and relentless. (It’s not helped by the simultaneous translation, though we get the rare translator who reads her lines with a bit of animation.) I exit feeling like I’ve been beaten with clubs.
That night I attend the inaugural film of the Kulinarisches Kino, a special sidebar curated by filmmaker and bon vivant Thomas Struck, which features films with food themes, two a night for six nights. The first screening each evening is followed by a fancy dinner cooked by one of Berlin’s top chefs, served across the street from the theater in a rather amazing turn-of-the-century “tent” made of wood and stained glass, draped with velvet, and hung with antique lights and bibelots. The screenings aren’t marketed to the international festivalgoers: they sell out almost immediately long before the Festival opens to the hometown German crowd. All the publications about it are in German only, and often the films have German subtitles and no option for simultaneous translation. This year the Kulinarisches Kino is called In the Food for Love.
Tonight’s film is, appropriately, Io Sono L’amore (I Am Love), luckily for me in a print with English subtitles, starring and co-produced by Festival favorite Tilda Swinton, who introduces the film dressed head-to-toe in a fashion-forward copper-colored satin pantsuit that exactly matches her hair. The melodrama is set in a rich Milanese family, inhabitants of an enviable mansion and upstairs/downstairs lifestyle. Swinton plays the exquisitely-dressed Russian-born matriach who falls in love and lust with a friend of her son, a chef who woos her with local, fresh, seasonal fare, as well as his slender and well-muscled body. Chaos ensues.
We troop over to the restaurant, where our ringleader Alice Waters, member of last year’s Berlinale jury, stuffs nine of us, including Kitchen Sister radio producer Davia Nelson, Telluride Film Festival director Tom Luddy, and photographer Brigitte Lacombe, into a booth meant for six. It’s the birthday of Waters’ daughter Fanny’s friend Teddy, as well as Valentine’s Day and Chinese New Year, so there’s a lot to toast, and floods of wine to toast with. We’re fed a German-Russian-Italian menu vaguely inspired by the film, of salmon topped with a horseradish mousse and tender whitefish in a pale green sauce, cooked by Christian Lohse, proprietor of a Michelin two-star Berlin restaurant. Festival director Dieter Kosslick spins by, leaving a nosegay of old-fashioned roses on our table, telling us he’s bringing another just like it to his wife, who he hasn’t seen in three days. Tilda, interviewed onstage, tells us that for her the film is about nature. I know what she means. My own overstuffed and well-liquored nature leads me out the door and home to bed long before the dessert of Gefultes Baisertortchen mit Kaffeecreme comes to the table.