Berlinale first look: Brief Story from the Green Planet attempts an otherworldly embrace of tolerance

One of the more upbeat of Berlinale Teddy Award winners, Santiago Loza’s low-budget curio champions three Argentine misfits on a self-fortifying alien rescue mission.

Paul O’Callaghan

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Romina Escobar as Tania, Paula Grinszpan as Daniela, Luis Soda as Pedro and Elvira Onetto in Brief Story from the Green Planet

Romina Escobar as Tania, Paula Grinszpan as Daniela, Luis Soda as Pedro and Elvira Onetto in Brief Story from the Green Planet

It’s easy to fixate on the Berlinale’s shortcomings – its lacklustre competitions of late, its tricky-to-navigate programme, the enthusiasm-sapping soullessness of Potsdamer Platz in February. But the festival continues to excel as a launchpad for imaginative and provocative LGBTQ+ cinema, even if this is sometimes overlooked in mainstream press coverage.

A striking number of this edition’s queer highlights – Jayro Bustamante’s oppressive conversion therapy drama Tremors; Marius Olteanu’s intimate study of marital strife Monsters; Armando Praça’s Greta, a poignant evocation of lives lived on the margins – centred around tortured and conflicted gay men. Perhaps reluctant to champion a title that perpetuates tired tropes, this year’s Teddy jury gave their award for best queer feature to Brief Story from the Green Planet, a less accomplished but more inclusive and optimistic effort.

On paper, it sounds ostentatiously quirky. Headstrong trans woman Tania (Romina Escobar) returns to her childhood home to discover that her late grandmother spent her final years raising a pint-sized alien as a surrogate child, and that the old woman’s dying wish was for the now ailing creature to be returned to where it first appeared on Earth. With the unwavering support of her friends Pedro (Luis Soda) and Daniela (Paula Grinszpan), Tania sets off across rural Argentina to lay the wheezing extraterrestrial to rest.

Brief Story from the Green Planet (Breve historia del planeta verde, 2019)

But rather than lean into the inherent zaniness of his premise, writer-director Santiago Loza strikes an enigmatic, melancholy tone. A wordless opening sequence, set to an ominous, John Carpenter-esque score, depicts the three protagonists moping around their respective apartments, each seemingly afflicted with a severe case of urban alienation. Daniela, it transpires, is nursing a broken heart. Pedro seems at peace on the dance floor of his local queer club, but distinctly uneasy in heteronormative environments. And Tania suffers the constant indignity of being objectified and harassed by men she happens to cross paths with.

However, in stoically committing to their unlikely mission, the trio tap into a shared reserve of inner strength, and begin to turn the tables on their oppressors. In one standout sequence, Pedro dances uninhibitedly in a neon-lit backwater diner, signalling his queerness in a decidedly macho space. He’s pushed to the ground by a surly local, who makes it clear that such freedom of expression isn’t welcome here. But Tania confronts the assailant, who turns out to be a former schoolmate, and, by calmly establishing Pedro and herself as his equals, swiftly makes him see the error of his ways. It’s as if their connection to the alien has endowed the friends with supernatural powers to combat prejudice.

Romina Escobar as Tania

Romina Escobar as Tania

And thus it becomes clear that the convoluted set-up is essentially all in service of a simple plea for tolerance. Characters who accept the unfamiliar, in whatever form it may take, have a decidedly easier time of it in this world than those who don’t. But while it’s refreshing to see the underlying sentiment of so much queer cinema expressed in such an idiosyncratic manner, the film runs out of steam in its final act, despite a brisk 75-minute running time.

As Loza builds towards an abstract climax, our heroes eradicate from existence a menacing, torch-carrying mob, simply by presenting a united front. It’s a haunting, visually striking sequence, but sheds little further light on the filmmaker’s worldview. Brief Story is one of the weaker Teddy winners of recent years – but it’s hard to begrudge this playfully inventive, big-hearted little film its moment in the spotlight.

 

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