58th Berlin International Film Festival

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David Prichard/The Weinstein Company

The winners of the Golden and Silver Bears were announced at tonight’s award ceremony, but the 58th edition of the Berlinale (or the Berlin Film Festival), has been running apace for over a week now, opening last Thursday with the world premiere of Martin Scorsese’s documentary of a concert given by the Rolling Stones in 2006, Shine A Light. In the countdown to the last few hours of this year’s Berlinale – the festival, incidentally, was created in 1951 by the city’s occupying allied forces in order to promote international cinema – here are a few personal reflections on 2008’s competition fare and the direction in which one of the world’s biggest and most prestigious, public film festivals is now steering.

Certainly in the last three or four years of attendance at the Berlinale, the program of films in competition (20 this year) seems to have become steadily more commercial and the event itself ever more glamorous. In the festival literature and publicity, however, the Berlinale’s director is keen to emphasis that the festival’s star factor and lineup of “great cinema” (read: big-budget cinema too) are nothing new. The first festival apparently opened with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. This year, if you were hanging out anywhere near the festival’s epicenter i.e, at the Sony Center, the Hyatt Hilton or the Berlinale Palast (the main festival screen), on the red carpet, you could easily have bumped into Scorsese tagging along with a rabble of rather haggard but wealthy-looking sexagenarians who call themselves … er … something like the Rolling Stones; Penelope Cruz flaunting her new English-language based film, Elegy, in which she co-stars with Ben Kingsley; Daniel Day-Lewis touting through town the late European release of There Will Be Blood; and most recently, Madonna, in town to promote her directorial debut, Filth and Wisdom – unilaterally annihilated by the world press. (You can but admire Madonna’s – there is no other way to put it – cajones!)

Overall, this particular critic was rather disappointed and underwhelmed by the 58th Berlinale’s film offering. It seemed almost as if, despite the glitz adorning the VIP lounges, something was missing from the festival this time round. There wasn’t even any snow – usually a given in February Berlin. That being said, Mike Leigh’s latest twist on the feel-good movie Happy-Go-Lucky and German director Doris Dörrie’s Cherryblossoms (Kirschblüten – Hanami) were both excellent examples of the craftsmanship of veteran filmmakers, with their innate ability to build character and narrative for maximum emotional impact. Although homegrown, Dörrie’s film, to my mind, has a chance at winning the Golden Bear. Less compelling, but nevertheless accomplished works were shown by France’s Robert Guediguian with his long-awaited revenge thriller, Lady Jane and 70-year-old Japanese director Yoji Yamada’s tribute to female stoicism and solidarity during the painful years of the WWII in his semi-autobiographical, Kabei, Our Mother. In town, Kabei seemed to impress audiences way beyond its impression on me, which could see it as a surprise runner for best film, especially as the politically engaged director Costa-Gavras is presiding over this year’s festival jury. I was similarly interested in but not amazed by the Korean tale Night and Day (Bam gua nat), set in contemporary Paris – the latest work by Hong Sang-soo. Nicely made and a pleasantly intriguing watch, I was unconvinced by arguments that Night and Day has great philosophical portent and a serious message to convey about the nature of art. It may have such pretensions but for me, it did not live up to them.

Despite a terrific performance by Tilda Swinton in the title role Julia, Eric Zonca’s 10-years-in-the-making second feature was largely implausible. It is difficult to imagine how much worse it would have been without Swinton’s injection of outstanding character acting. The English entry Gardens of the Night also passed by largely unnoticed, although I overheard a fellow journalist employ the word “dire” as he left the cinema theater, which raised a smile to my lips. It doesn’t get much worse than that! Another overlyhyped film – which unfortunately claimed the Golden Bear – was Elite Squad, about crack police squads in the drug-addled favellas of Rio de Janeiro which was violent and chaotic, and little else. Also off the mark was the Silver Bear winner Standard Operating Procedure, a talking-head documentary of real-life abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, related by the perpetrators. Both made one uncomfortable for the wrong reasons and left a bad taste in the mouth.

As with all festivals however, there are always a few gems. Grief and mourning were themes much in evidence in this year’s competition line-up. Both in the Mexican Lake Tahoe and Italian Quiet Chaos (Caos calmo), these emotions were handled – albeit very differently – with gentle humor and great sensitivity to good effect. I would be delighted to hear that either had won a cuddly bear. Which leads me to Best Director winning Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood – already released in the United States and in Britain – the film premiered in Continental Europe at the Berlinale and is a frontrunner – some would say is streets ahead – for the main plaudit. Having longed for months to see this brilliant director’s latest offering, I was not disappointed. Day-Lewis’ performance as twisted oil magnate Daniel Plainview reconfirmed for me his status as the greatest film actor of our day. This is a story you can sink your teeth into and one that exquisitely reproduces the look and ambiance of the Gold Rush period. To my mind, the film’s last 10 minutes were less plausible and unnecessary, but Anderson’s latest is a major work. His film’s title contains a promise on which he delivers. We shall have to wait, only a few more hours now, to see if it lives up to its promise of winning overall in Berlin.

NB: The above article is a round-up exclusively of some of the films in competition at this year’s Berlinale. The Berlinale also features excellent parallel programs which showcase more independent, experimental and first-time films in its Forum, Panorama, Talent Campus, Teddy Bear and Shorts categories. The Berlin Film Festival’s world film market is also internationally renowned.

© 2008 Maxine Harfield. All rights reserved.

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