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THE BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL, PART ONE

A few years after its move to Potsdamer Platz, the old dead zone between East and West Berlin that’s now a somber (at least in rainy February) pedestrian mall lit by the logos of its surrounding corporate spires, the Berlin Film Festival represents a shrewdly intelligent answer to the questions surrounding film production, exhibition and distribution today. Whereas the success of most festivals boils down to the cruel calculus of distribution deals and premiering masterpieces, the Berlin Film Festival, through its accompanying Talent Campus and its various retrospective programs, embraces a kind of “film festival as film school” model. By streaming 530 young filmmakers from around the world between its screenings and their various meetings and seminars at the nearby Campus, Berlin topper Dieter Kosslick and his team implicitly argue for the perpetual regrowth of cinema: if you don’t like any of the films on display, then who’s to say that one of the campus talents won’t return next year with one you do.

I’ll have more to say about the festival and the Talent Campus in the Spring print edition, but, for now, here are quick thoughts on some of the films I managed to see.

Unfortunately, I missed probably the most talked about film in the Competition, Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now, a drama about two Palestinian suicide bombers that was filmed in Namblus. “An olive branch” between the Jewish and Palestinian communities is how one U.S. distributor described the film, which has a script developed at the Sundance labs. While some feel that the film’s subject matter and its humanistic take on the lives of two would-be suicide bombers will make a major U.S. distribution deal unlikely, the enthusiastic public and critical response (although it confounded predictors by failing to win an award) should prompt someone in the States to pick it up.

I also missed Mark Cornford-May’s U-Carmen, a South African film about a production of Carmen staged in a South African township that won the grand prize, the Golden Bear.

But I did catch the other film dubbed before the festival as a hot Competition title — Jacques Audiard’s The Beat My Heart Skipped, a loose remake of James Toback’s deeply sleazy 1978 crime drama Fingers — even if it too left the festival without a prize. Less violent and lacking the self-reflective misogyny of Toback’s film, the pic is a subtle thriller about a young real-estate “fixer” — a guy who basically threatens and intimidates people out of house and home — who slacks on his criminal life after reconnecting with his dream of being a concert pianist. The second American remake in a row from French production company Why Not? (the company also produced Focus’s current John Carpenter-redo, Assault on Precinct 13) the film trades Toback’s brutal worldview for a more, well, French view of love, life, men, women and relationships. Audiard, working in a handheld, quickly edited style, is precise and kinetic in his direction, and Romaine Duris, with a wildly charismatic lead performance, should become a major star with this film.

Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang returned to the Berlin Competition where his masterpiece The River won the Silver Bear in 1997. His new film, The Wayward Cloud, continues the tact the director has taken after that earlier film as he recombines his various devices — exquisite framing, minimal dialogue, fantasy musical production numbers and alternately comic and melancholy depictions of urban anomie — while this time adding a fair amount of softcore sex. There’s a welcome surrealism to scenes like the opening, in which the young watchseller from the director’s previous What Time is it There?, inventively uses a watermelon for extended foreplay — a sex trick that leads to a sticky situation when the city experiences a water shortage. Tsai’s style remains entirely unique, but I couldn’t help but feel that his is an increasingly formal filmmaking as he reworks variations on the same emotionally muted themes.

Tickets, an anthology film directed by Eduardo Olmi, Abbas Kiaorostami and Ken Loach, was a disappointment in the Official Selection. (It premiered out of competition.) Three shorts all set on a European train, the film fell victim to the usual anthology-film trap. One film was bad (Olmi’s, a cloying tale of an old scientist fantasizing about a younger woman), one okay (Kiaorostami’s, about a young man accompanying a cranky old battleaxe on a trip to a funeral), and only one good (Loach’s, about a drama involving a stolen ticket, three Scottish soccer fans, and a travelling immigrant family).

Perhaps my favorite film in the Competition was The Last Mitterand, Robert Guediguian’s odd, intimate dramatization of the final days of the late French Socialist President. Based on a French bestselling novel, the film is about a young journalist chosen to interview the ailing Mitterand at length during the last three months of his life and produce a book based on the conversations. The film balances a tale of the journalist’s personal crisis — his wife is pregnant and leaving him — with the president’s smart, sometimes poetic, and occasionally confounding musings on socialist politics in the age of globalization.

The film doesn’t deal with Mitterand’s late-career corruption scandals nor with his personal life. (The journalist, does, however, try to get to the bottom of Mitterand’s activities during the Vichy years.) The peculiar power of The Last President comes not so much from the film’s words (and there are a lot of them) but from the sheer cinematic spectacle of a recently deceased president being employed so elegantly within such a fictional construct. Mitterand the character’s ruminations on mortality dovetail dramatically with the director’s longstanding inquiry into left-wing politics and practice in France. Guediguian has made a sly, charming film from the contradictions between his gentle style — as well as tthe playful central performance by Michel Bouquet — and the larger political issues which transcend the death of a single man.

In the next day or two I’ll post some reactions to films in the Panorama and Forum sections.
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