For some years there’s been a widespread feeling that the official competition at the Berlin Film Festival has been hitting below its weight, so this year’s selection came as a pleasant and welcome surprise. There were disappointments, of course, but after the opening film – Nobody Wants the Night, directed by Isabel Coixet (a regular contestant in Berlin, though without a particularly high profile elsewhere) – things soon picked up with early hits like Jafar Panahi’s Taxi and Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years.
Thereafter, only a few films were truly poor or of little interest, and of the 21 titles competing for the Golden Bear, I found a third very good indeed – by Berlin standards that’s quite something. Indeed, the jury, presided over by Darren Aronofsky, appeared to feel likewise, as it divided the prizes among nine movies. Seven of those were titles I would strongly recommend, while the other two certainly deserve recognition for highly impressive craftsmanship. Accordingly, rather than include here all the films I managed to catch in Berlin, I’ll simply deal with those which I – and, it seems, the jury – enjoyed the most.
Though for many there was no single frontrunner in the competition, few were surprised when the Golden Bear went to Taxi, which had been widely greeted as a return to form by Panahi after the sometimes mystifyingly metaphorical Closed Curtain. The new film, far more accessible, is in some ways a re-run of Abbas Kiarostami’s 10 (2002), in that it’s set and shot from inside a car – a taxi of sorts, with Panahi playing himself as an affable amateur cabbie. Listening and chatting as he drives, he gives rides around Tehran to a variety of passengers – a rabid right-winger, a liberal teacher, a man selling pirate DVDs, a couple distraught after an accident, women on their way to a shrine – until he finally picks up his niece, a sassy youngster making a little movie herself for a school project. Cue much talk about (among other things) reality and how it should or should not be represented on film – a subject clearly close to Panahi’s heart, given his current standing with the Iranian authorities. If that makes the film sound solemn, think again; though the film touches on ethics, politics and aesthetics, the tone is frequently playful, with gags and sly reminders that film, for better or worse, trades in illusion.
Another especially strong contender, which ended up winning the best actor prizes for Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, was 45 Years, written and directed by Andrew Haigh (Weekend, 2011). About a seemingly stable couple preparing to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary but rocked by news of the discovery, in an Alpine glacier, of the long-lost body of the husband’s erstwhile girlfriend, the film is a wry, witty, wonderfully true-to-life drama notable not only for its superb performances but also for the subtlety of its script and direction. Also impressive for its expressive use of Norfolk’s landscape and weather, it comes across a little like late Bergman – but with rather more laughs. For me at least, it’s one of the finest British films of recent years.
The best director prize was shared between Radu Jude for Aferim! and Małgorzata Szumowska for Body. The Romanian, rightly acclaimed for his earlier The Happiest Girl in the World and Everyone in Our Family, turns from contemporary urban life to the Wallachian wilderness of the 1830s for a western-style drama about a constable and his son searching for a gypsy slave on the run from his boyar master. An extraordinarily vivid recreation of the past, with a credibly archaic (and frequently very funny) script illuminating the beliefs, ideas, values and aspirations of the time, it depicts how the rich and powerful of the Ottoman Empire treated the poor and disenfranchised with appalling cruelty and violence – and hints, in passing, at how little, appearances notwithstanding, may have changed in the world at large.
Body, arguably the Polish director’s finest film since Happy Man or 33 Scenes from Life, deals like those two films with how humans respond to the mortality of others. A woman’s death some years ago has effectively driven a wedge between her husband – a police coroner accustomed to dealing with corpses – and her daughter, who’s seeking treatment for her anorexia from a therapist who, it turns out, claims to communicate with the dead. What could have been a recipe for indigestible psychodrama is turned into a rich but surprisingly light-hearted examination of grief, loneliness, self-doubt and faith; black comedy frequently raises its head, and the final scenes are imbued with a very engaging, unsentimental tenderness.
Mordant humour also comes to the fore at regular intervals in Pablo Larraín’s El Club, in which a house in a quiet Chilean coastal town, inhabited by a group of defrocked, dog-racing-addicted priests overseen by a nun, comes under investigation by a crusading representative of a ‘new church’ seemingly keen to clean up its all too often abusive act. Larraín’s customarily grubby visuals complement the murky motives of all concerned, but the film – which won the Grand Jury award (in other words, the second prize) – should certainly not be seen as simply anti-clerical; like most of his work, it centres on a society (Chile?) whose members feel they can and should get away with almost anything, such is the culture of complacency, concealment and conspiracy.
Latin America provided further impressive contestants. Jayro Bustamente’s Ixcanul Volcano, which won the Alfred Bauer award “for a film that opens new perspectives”, was an effective and affecting portrait of an Indian teenager, living with her impoverished parents in the mountains of Guatemala, who decides not to marry the solid widower chosen for her but to run off with a plantation worker to live in the States. Not a wise decision, as it happens, and the film lurches briefly towards melodrama before recovering its balance as a low-key, deftly observed slice of realism. The excellent performances are crucial, and the relationship between mother and daughter is especially well handled.
Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button was the only documentary in competition, and even given the exquisite craftsmanship that went into the making of this follow-up to Nostalgia for the Light (2010), it seemed a little odd to give it the award for best screenplay. No matter, as long as it got a prize. Where the earlier film moved from a contemplation of the skies to an elegy for those murdered during Pinochet’s dictatorship, this new work shifts from water in its various manifestations to a history of Chile’s indigenous and now virtually extinct nomadic sailors – and, again, to others who disappeared in Patagonia. A supremely lyrical, thoughtful piece of filmmaking, it would probably seem still more remarkable had we not already seen Nostalgia for the Light.
While I had some reservations about the plausibility of certain moments in Sebastian Schipper’s single-take drama Victoria and about the pacing and focus of Alexei German Jr’s Under Electric Clouds, both are well worth seeing, and there’s no denying the skill and ambition that went into their making: the virtuoso staging involved in each was rightly recognised by the jury which shared the ‘outstanding artistic contribution’ award between the films’ cinematographers.
But my final recommendation goes to one more Latin American film, albeit this time out of competition: Jia Zhang-ke, a Guy from Fenyang, a documentary by Brazil’s Walter Salles, in which he follows the Chinese director to places he grew up in or where he filmed. Jia speaks openly about his life and his movies, while family members, collaborators, old friends and even passers-by chip in with their own contributions. It’s an illuminating portrait, respectful of its subject’s importance as an artist but never po-faced. It’s also gently affectionate, and finally, as Jia speaks about his father, very moving. As a tribute from one filmmaker to another, it’s quite exemplary.