SIGNIS FILM REVIEWS BERLINALE 2010
ARBRE ET LA FORET, L' (FAMILY TREE)
AUTRE DUMAS, L' (THE OTHER DUMAS)
DAVID WANTS TO FLY
EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
FATHER OF INVENTION
FREMDE, DIE (WHEN YOU LEAVE)
JUD SUSS - RISE AND FALL
KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, The
KILLER INSIDE ME, The
MINE VAGANTI (LOOSE CANNONS)
MY NAME IS KHAN
NA PUTU (ON THE PATH)
OTOUTO (MY MOTHER'S BROTHER)
SON OF BABYLON
WHEN I WANT TO WHISTLE, I WHISTLE
WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP, A
L'ARBRE ET LA FORET (FAMILY TREE)
(France, 2010, d. Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau. Panorama)
This is a particularly French film. The French excel at making films about family gatherings, sketching characters and developing portraits as the characters talk and engage in conflict. There are usually meal sequences which offer opportunities for revelations.
The occasion here is a funeral or, after the funeral. The father of the deceased (Guy Marchand) does not attend, which irks his surviving son and his dead son's daughter (Sabrina Seyvecou) who is there with her partner (Yannick Rennier). He seems a haughty man locked into his own life. His wife (Francoise Fabian) seems the strong, sometimes silent type.
In the aftermath we learn the life story of the father which helps the audience and the family to understand him and, perhaps, sympathise with him. He reveals that he was a young homosexual amongst those rounded up by the Gestapo in 1941 and deported to a concentration camp. He suffered, felt his life was ruined but escaped in 1943. With mores more secretive in that era, he married, had two sons. His wife decided that they should stay together.
The other character explored is the granddaughter, a fragile personality who relies on her supportive boyfriend.
So much of the film is talk and discussion, emotional talk that demands and commands our attention, especially when the father does tell the family his story.
As the film notes at the end, it was only in 2001 that the French government acknowledged the persecution and imprisonment of the homosexual minority in wartime France.
L'AUTRE DUMAS (THE OTHER DUMAS)
(France, 2010, d. Safy Nebbou. Special screening)
Alexandre Dumas, pere's, life may not have been exactly the same as the adventures of the three musketeers or the count of Monte Cristo nor had the connections with royalty as his tales of Queen Margot or Louis XIV. However, this part portrait, part adventure, does bring something of the excitement that he put in his pages.
Who better to be Dumas, a larger than life, flamboyant character, than Gerard Depardieu. As always, he so inhabits his character (usually looking the same but here he has a frizzy hairdo) so that we believe he is Dumas. He is excellently counterbalanced by Benoit Poelvoorde as Dumas' writing partner, August Maquet who can be called the 'other' Dumas since he may have written far more of Dumas' work than he has been credited with.
The picture of their collaboration in ideas, plot development and writing is intriguing. Later Maquet was to sue Dumas and was awarded 25% of authorship but was not allowed any explicit credit, finally buried in a pauper's grave while Dumas was eventually interred in the Pantheon.
How much of the adventure side of this film is fact? Who knows?
There is a Dumas' plot device where a young woman (Melanie Thierry) mistakes Maquet for Dumas and enlists his help to petition for freedom for her imprisoned father. Maquet is smitten, prepared to give up everything for her. There are home complications, property-selling complications, republican and monarchist complications. There is a network of spies and some revolutionary activity. The identity issue is resolved at a lavishly costumed banquet and dance. And Dumas and Maquet, after angry interchanges, return to their writing.
A colourful re-creation of 19th century France and an entertaining tale.
(Turkey, 2010, d. Semih Kaplanoglu. Competition. Golden Bear for Best Film and winner, Ecumenical Award)
Bal is the third in a trilogy by writer and director, Semih Kaplanoglu, the previous two films being Egg and Milk. They look at contemporary Turkish life and focus on work and change as well as family.
Bal is a truly contemplative film, long takes for audiences to observe and feel (far too long for audiences with shorter attention spans). Into this contemplation of reality, come a number of dreams (which, the father of the family warns should not be told to others).
The focus is a 6 year old boy, a wonderfully lively and innocent performance by Bora Altas, who lives with his father and mother in a remote village in north eastern Turkey. In private with his father, he can read and shows great signs of intelligence. At school, he stammers and is generally silent. The director does wonders with the boy who has a vibrant and engaging screen presence. The warm scenes at home and out in the countryside where he bonds with his father (a manager of beehives in the trees) are very moving. But, the distance between the boy and his mother is dismaying. The film has many classroom sequences: reading, forming letters, sums where children can by hurtful as they laugh. But, the teacher is a fine affirming man.
This beautiful film is a feeling immersion in this Turkish way of life.
DAVID WANTS TO FLY
(Germany, 2010, d. David Sieveking. Panorama)
Quite a journey. No, that's an understatment! This is a very significant journey. I am glad that I saw the film without knowing anything about the journey and where it led. But, the word is out now. This is a movie expose of Transcendental Meditation. And quite a piece of movie investigative research it is.
David Sieveking, a German, looks almost the cliched description of a nerd – a touch gangly, bespectacled and with a face that shows everything is being absorbed seriously. He is also more than a bit of an extrovert.
At film school, David Lynch was his cinema idol. Discovering that Lynch meditated and was, in fact, a strong supporter of the Maharashi and TM, as well as a celebrity fund-raiser for them, he traveled to the US to interview Lynch on film and fell even further under his spell and began to learn to meditate himself, being given his own personal mantra. This was the foundation for a documentary film, enhanced by the footage of the Maharishi, his enthusiastic followers, testimony from Donovan, Paul McCartney? and Ringo Starr. And he went to India to film the rituals of the Maharishi's funeral.
He had on-and-off support from his partner, Marie Pohl.
Buoyed with enthusiasm and spiritual zest (though he could not emulate the strange phenomenon of the Flying Yogists who, to facilitate focus and intuition, could bounce and bounce and bounce along in the lotus position). But, at the grand assembly following the death of the Maharishi, he begins (as does the audience) to wonder. Pompous crowned kings vie for power. Ideological clashes break out – and David is requested to stop filming.
What follows is a journey of doubt and disillusionment, the realisation that TM had developed the characteristics of a cult, that money (lots of it) had become paramount, that projects were ambitious, buildings and peace centres in India, US and Germany, and many were not achieved, that rumours about the mores of the Maharishi and inconsistencies about his celibacy needed to be followed up. There are meetings and interviews with a woman who had had a relationship with the Maharishi, his 'skin-boy' (whose title referred to his solemnly preceding the Maharishi into meetings holding a deer skin) had been ousted by a peevish boss, and a Colorado financier who had contributed over $150,000,000 and found it had gone nowhere – or to a family in India.
David Sieveking brings this phase of his quest to a close at the Ganges and the search for the source of the river as well as at the monastery from the Maharishi came and made his claims – which were not endorsed by the current leadership there.
The film is always interesting, increasingly intriguing and challenging to attitudes to faith, spirituality and double standards. At the time of the film's release, David Lynch, a staunch disciple of TM, was in India making a movie about the Maharishi.
EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
(UK, 2010, d. Banksy. Competition)
In the UK and, according to this eccentric documentary, street artist, Banksy (a hooded figure who speaks with an echo and has a grip on and is articulate about popular culture) has a strong, if at times, controversial reputation.
He puts an emphasis on the fact that he is not a film-maker and that this film came about a bit by accident and is more of a film about an even more eccentric character, Thierry Guetta.
It is a blend of documentary and mockumentary – at times reminiscent of a Christopher Guest film only a lot of this is true – or is it?.
At first, we have ardent disciple, Thierry, with his video camera on the loose in LA (where he has moved from France). He gets an interview with Banksy and follows up filming (and getting caught and questioned by security) in a theatrical art event critical of the US and Guantanamo, staged in Disneyland. Thierry then records the preparation for Banksy's successful LA exhibition which helps street art become both trendy and pricey.
Banksy suggests to Thierry that he edit a film from his hundreds of tapes. It results in a 90 minute film of arbitrary selection and intercutting of art and events that is avant garde and unwatchable (Banksy's verdict). So, Banksy suggests that Thierry get into art, not realising he is encouraging Thierry to turn into a kind of Frankenstein art monster of ambition and celebrity. Thierry chooses the street art name of Mr Brian Wash and organises the exhibition to end all exhibitions. Thierry loves his fame, bestows interviews, is shrewd in business, hires companies to mount the exhibition which, against all odds, opens on time and becomes a huge LA event.
So, there we have a slice or art life – sincerity, phoniness, pretension and pomposity and some quite arresting work (playing with Warhol portraits amongst other experiments). Many exited via the gift shop and shelled out for collector's items.
(Denmark, 2010, d. Pernille Fischer Christensen. Competition)
A Danish family. Their ancestor once walked from Germany to Denmark with a sack of flour on his back and started a bakery which flourished and is now, by appointment, supplier of bread products to the royal family.
The focus, however, is on the younger generation. Ditte (Lene Marie Christensen), who is a talented gallery director, is being offered a prestigious art position in New York City. Her partner, Peter, an artist, is supportive of her.
Two crises arise which challenge Ditte. She is pregnant and faces the question of career and abortion vs having a child. Once again, Peter is supportive though he feels Ditte is dominant in her decision-making for them.
Secondly, her father (Jesper Christensen) who has brought the bakery to its present successful status has been cleared of lung cancer after a year of treatment, but soon collapses with brain tumours. Should Ditte stay during her father's illness and death? And, what if his wish is that she should give up her ambitions and take over the management of the bakery? The audience is drawn into the detail of the life of the family: Ditte's sister (who was not asked to manage the bakery), the father's partner with whom he has two young children.
Because of the detail and the emotion, the audience is made to ask itself how they have managed our would manage in such life/death situations. There is a particularly long death and preparation for burial sequence (echoes of Ingmar Bergman) that gives audiences time to feel and think – especially if they can ignore the background song with its appalling lyrics, 'what is the truth behind your innocence', which makes no sense at all in the context and which is repeated and repeated. It does not destroy the film but it is a great pity to spoil the serious presentation of death and the response of the family. The film does end with some moments indicating hope.
FATHER OF INVENTION
(US, 2010, d. Trent Cooper. Panorama)
A generally genial tongue-in-cheek satiric comedy except when the audience finally gets the sniffles during a sentimental, heartfelt speech and reconciliation as the film ends.
Kevin Spacey has done some offbeat films while he has been absorbed by directing the Old Vic Company in London. Shrink was unengagingly eccentric. Father of Invention, however, is quite engagingly eccentric.
It benefits immediately from a full-on opening as Kevin Spacey as Bob Axle, a master of infommercials bursts on to the screen with his spiels – he is funny as an over-the-top enthusiastic salesman. Professionally, he is a 'fabricator' (not an inventor) who brings unlikely ideas together, like a spray can which also photographs an assailant.
But, careless users of a machine for exercising while watching TV and changing channels, lose fingers and he is jailed for a depraved carelessness concerning his customers. His wife (Virginia Madsen) has received half his large fortune. The victims were awarded the rest.
Eight years later, he is out, mistaken for a vagrant. He is unwelcome at his own house where his wife has a new husband (Craig Robinson) who is an admirer of Axle's enterprises. His daughter (Camilla Belle) runs a centre for women's employment. She does let her father stay for a month on trial. One roommate (Anna Assimova) is sympathetic. The other (Heather Graham), who considers herself a lesbian gym teacher, is not. Within days, Bob Axle loses his job at Family Mart, managed by the by-the-book, Troy (Johnny Knoxville).
Fate allows Axle another chance, another 'fabrication', despite his sometimes thoughtless and stupid actions. Which eventually leads to the aforementioned sniffles happy ending.
Spacey is very adept at creating characters and he brings verve, energy and comic timing to this one.
Postscript: during the final credits, not to be missed, Virginia Madsen and Craig Robinson are at a piano singing (?) a mesmerisingly awful song completely off-key. And, for the fun of it, they wrote the song too.
FREMDE, DIE (WHEN YOU LEAVE)
(Germany, 2010, d. Feo Aladag. Panorama)
A women's film in most senses. And a strong feminist film challenging some traditional Turkish attitudes towards women. It was written and directed by a woman, Feo Aladag, photographed by a woman, produced by several women and some men. At the centre is a srong performance by Sibel Kekilli.
The English title is 'When You Leave'. Umay has grown up in a family of Turks who migrated to Germany and have made their home there but are also part of the Turkish community in Berlin. Umay has married a Turk and lives in Istanbul. Her husband has violent moments against her and her little son, Cem. Umay impulsively leaves her husband and returns to Germany.
Were this a film about a western family, she and her son would probably be welcomed back. She would get a job, study and make a life with wider family support. Not here. Family honour is stained, gossip feared, the family being sidelined in the community is unthinkable. Umay is rejected by her parents, treated brutally by her older brother who has absorbed the complete male honour code and does not hesitate to hound Umay and resort to physical violence.
Umay does fend for herself but the film shows how entrenched customs can be and dramatises the dire results. Performances are convincing. We feel that we have been immersed in a difficult community. And the ending in no way lets the audience off.
(US, 2010, d. Noah Baumbach. Competition)
Noah Baumbach has made some small idiosyncratic films about family, the dysfunctional family in The Squid and the Whale, the family assembling for Margot at the Wedding. This time, he offers a portrait of a strange, or not so strange 40 year old American male, Roger Greenberg. Along with this picture of Greenberg, is a side portrait of the 25 year old Florence, the next generation to Greenberg.
The setting is straightforward, contemporary LA. Florence works as an assistant to a family and is asked to keep an eye on the husband's brother, just out of a mental institution who will babysit the house and the dog while the family has six weeks in Vietnam.
While the setting is straightforward, Greenberg is certainly not. It is an advantage that he is played by Ben Stiller, not in raucous comedy mode, but more like the put-upon Greg in the Focker comedies, except that he is messed up psychologically. He has a past with drugs, with a band that never achieved the single record because of his dominating interference. He writes paranoid letters of complaints to companies and can burst out in hurtful 'plain truths' as the mood takes him. Greenberg is a case.
Florence herself has the makings of a case: broken relationships, pregnancy, abortion, educated but little job satisfaction, a would-be singer who is attracted by Greenberg though his responses to her can be particularly insensitive, nasty and hurtful. Greta Gerwig is very good in this role.
There is no particular ending in view of this portrait. The film just stops – but could go on in the same way.
A great plus of the film is the restrained performance by Rhys Ifans as Greenberg's best friend who has made more positive efforts with his own life.
JUD SUSS: RISE AND FALL
(Germany, 2010, d. Oskar Koehler. Competition)
Josef Goebbels' hand-picked film with hand-picked cast, Jud Suss/Jew Suss, the 1940 anti-Semitic propaganda film he wanted the world to see as art, is still banned in Germany. There had been an earlier, sympathetic British version with Conrad Veidt who had left Germany. The novel, Jew Suss, was written by, a Jewish author, Lion Feuchtwanger, and tells the story of a merchant, Suss, who wants to better himself in 18th century Germany. Goebbels wanted an actor who would portray Suss humanely, even sympathetically, the more to dramatise his anti-Semitism agenda, an exercise in cinema manipulation.
The story of the making of this version of Jud Suss and its effect on the actor, Ferdinand Marian, is told in this rather unwieldy drama. And Goebbels and his machinations are to the fore.
Perhaps there is too much going on in the film for audiences to digest it well. The film's parts are intriguing and worth seeing. The overall impact is mixed, especially after the screenings of the film throughout Germany and for the troops, Goebbels succeeding with its impact and effect. The film dramatises Florian's subsequent wanderings, cabaret in Prague, the aftermath of the war in Munich in 1946, the year of his death. (The Internet Movie Database, however, lists 8 films he completed in Germany after Jud Suss, from 1940-1945.) These sequences seem something of a dramatic anti-climax to the story of the film and they might have been absorbed into the final credits information about what happened to those who participated in the making of the film.
Florian was a matinee idol (and here looks and acts like an ageing Errol Flynn with touches of contemporaries, Ronald Colman, Robert Donat and Don Ameche). He did not want to play Suss and feared it would ruin his career. His wife was of Jewish ancestry (though aspects of her life and death are fictionalised here) and she and he were hiding a Jewish actor colleague in their garden shed. Goebbels was determined that Florian play the part and manipulated, cajoled, announced it publicly at a reception. Florian tried to fail the screen test but Goebbels applauded him and his later determination to invest Suss with humanity and dignity. Florian's wife eventually concurred in his taking the role. Extras (including the now interned actor he harboured) from the ghetto were rounded up to act as Jewish background characters.
This film is very interesting with its several re-enactments of key sequences, giving a flavour of its style and treatment of its subject. We see Goebbels triumphing at the 1940 Venice Film Festival and then at the Berlin premiere and on the road for screenings to the people and to the troops.
Tobias Moretti embodies Marian in a fine performance – a weak, vain, womanising man who may have meant well but who took to drink and was crushed by the film experience. Goebbels usually looks small, gaunt and grim (as was Ulrich Matthes in Downfall) but Moritz Bleibtreu (who has appeared in the director's Agnes and his Brothers and The Elementary Particles ) is short but extremely healthy, loud, bumptious, aping Hitler in his speeches and radio broadcasts, relishing his triumphs (with glimpses of his wife and their children, all of whom died in the bunker in April 1945).
A very interesting and disturbing curio of a film.
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
(US, 2010, d. Lisa Cholodenko. Competition)
Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko has been interested in relationships and families and, especially, the role of women, their behaviour and feelings.
This is a serious comedy with verve which keeps audiences interested, often amused, often challenged.
The two kids belong to a nuclear family, two parents, two children, one parent a doctor, the breadwinner, the other usually stays at home but has tried some careers and now intends to do garden landscaping. One kid is 18, going to college, a science buff, the other 15 with the usual adolescent problems. The difference is that the kids have two mums who have been in a relationship for the best part of twenty years. Each has borne a child through artificial insemination.
The plot development shows the two mums, their personalities, the strong and controlling doctor (Annette Bening) and the softer, home mum (Julianne Moore). While their own relationship has its particular characteristics and gender consequences, their parenting and dealing with their children's issues seems only too familiar from husband-wife marriage and rearing.
The son (Josh Hutcherson) wants to find out about the sperm donor for his and his sister's conception. The daughter (Mia Wasikowska – Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland) makes enquiries and quite easily discovers Paul (Mark Ruffalo) and they meet.
As might be expected, Paul, now older and wiser and running a restaurant, is drawn into being something of a father-figure. The mums have mixed feelings, the doctor hostile, thinking her role has been invaded. Paul gives the landscaper a job and emotional complications follow.
Media often focus on issues of same-sex male families, parenting and adoption. Here the drama is of female same-sex parents managing families.
There are funny moments, some serious reflection on contemporary issues. Audiences who have previous views may not alter them one way or the other. But, while the kids are all right, the presence of the male father-figure sometimes makes them better.
THE KILLER INSIDE ME
(UK, 2010, d. Michael Winterbottom. Competition)
The title might indicate some caution to audiences who do not like murder thrillers and whatever violence they might portray. Murder will out. And here it comes out very brutally – twice.
The reason for mentioning this first – though it should not have to be said for an audience who understands films and how they work in their conventions of storytelling – is that there was some uproar concerning the tone of and reasons for showing these brutal actions and so viscerally. Because the violence was perpetrated on two women, some comments were made that film was misogynistic. (A film showing Catholics being martyred by vicious authorities is scarcely anti-Catholic.) This violence against women is shown as abhorrent in the plot and condemns the brutal beater as mentally disturbed. Director Michael Winterbottom suggested that any other reading of the sequences would be perverse.
It is the question of that distinction between what is shown and how it is shown that is always important. There is a context here – the portrait of a deeply dysfunctional man. Whether the scenes in question are too long or are too much is always a matter of personal sensitivities and debate: what is too much for me may not be too much for the person next to me and the question arises whether my sensitivity is superior to that of the next person or just different, and who imposes the sensitivity norms? (Not all of us, to take a neutral example, are able to watch surgery procedures.)
Michael Winterbottom said that he stayed close to Jim Thompson's novel and that the rhythms of what is presented is his judgment and his editor's work.
It seems that there is a 'fundamentalist' approach to the presentation of sexuality and violent sequences on screen
sometimes by earnest and devout people who concentrate over-literally on the immediate content, the 'what', without spending reflection on the context, the 'how' and move immediately into protest and campaign mode.
It is often said that much should be left to the imagination – and that opinion has great value. On the other hand, faced with harsh or repellent images of reality, the imagination might not work. It blocks. It avoids. It can refuse to imagine or go beyond a brief suggestion of the sexuality or violence.
And, the film itself. Very well crafted, an arresting adaptation of the Thompson novel. It is a film noir – very noir despite the bright West Texas sunlight back in those days where the film is set. Thompson died in 1952. The British Winterbottom brings an outsider's perceptions to this basic American story, the madness that sometimes underlies the surface innocence and respectability and erupts unexpectedly and brutally.
Performances are striking. Casey Affleck, plays the young policeman, fresh-faced and unsuspicious, who harbours deep secrets, abusive experience in his family, and who lets go, even against those he loves, leading to a climax in the vein of much American literature, a fiery apocalyptic consummation.
Affleck is in every scenes and shows how effective he can be as he did with his Bob Ford assassinating Brad Pitt's Jesse James. Here is another Ford, Lou, who loses control of himself sinisterly, shrewdly and destructively. Jessica Alba is striking, Kate Hudson less so, mostly a foil for Affleck. A strong supporting cast brings to life the local sheriff, tycoons, wastrel sons, investigators, union leaders: Ned Beatty, Tom Bowers, Elias Koteas, Simon Baker, Bill Pullman.
So, this is genre material for a psychosexual case study. It is an American story. The US is a land of serial killers, impulsive mass shooters who make regular headlines as they break out. This has to be faced by American audiences and The Killer Inside Me and its issues may be a brief but properly challenging experience.
MINE VAGANTI (LOOSE CANNONS)
(Italy, 2010, d. Ferzan Ozpetek. Panorama)
For more than a decade, Turkish-born but Italian resident and film director, Ferzan Ozpetek, has made a series of films about families and/or special groups (Fati Ignoranti, Facing Window). He also made the evocative Sacro Cuore about service of the poor and self-sacrifice.
Here is another family portrait, the Contante family of Lecce who owns a pasta-making factory. Some magic realism inserts itself into the realistic narrative, especially with the free-spirited (loose cannon) grandmother who founded and guided the enterprise with the brother-in-law she loved. Flashbacks to her wedding recur through the film.
Concerning family: the patriarch, Vincenzo, needs to do a business deal to consolidate his firm. His older son, Antonio,runs the factory well. The younger son, Tommaso, plans to tell the truth about himself at the special business dinner – that he has studied literature in Rome rather than business, that he is a writer and that he is gay. The dinner turns out rather differently from what was anticipated. Ozpatek has always had gay themes and acceptance of the reality of homosexuality in this films. It is to the fore here, criticising traditional Italian homphobia and inserting some camp, caricature humour. This is a commedia sul serio.
MY NAME IS KHAN
(India 2009, d. Karan Johar. Special screening)
This is not a typical or traditional Bollywood movie. While it has some scenes in India, where two brothers grow up with their mother but who go to live in the US, the main part of this long film takes place in the United States.
The film stars one of India's most popular heartthrobs, Khan. However, he takes on a quite different role from the usual singing and dancing hero. He is Khan, a Muslim, an earnest and good man who has Aspergers' Syndrome. This means that he has characteristics of the idiot savant (remembering Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump), an encyclopedic amount of information on topics that create interest and a direct way of reciting facts and figures. More recently, Hugh Dancy portrayed a man with Aspergers' Syndrome in Adam. The other principal characteristic, which Khan explains to mystified people, is that the Aspergers man or woman does not pick up emotions and feelings if they are not expressed verbally. And metaphorical language and colloquialisms are taken literally.
As a child, Khan is bullied by other children and despised by his brother. When his mother sends him to San Francisco, his brother gives him a job selling beauty products which he does in his encyclopedic way but ingratiates himself with many customers. He also falls for a beautician, a divorced woman with a little boy who relates wonderfully with Khan.
It would be pleasant to say that all goes well in the land of opportunity. While Khan and others experience some prejudice against Muslims, it is the experience of 9/11 that transforms their lives. They become innocent targets of the war against terror and there are some tragic repercussions for Khan and his wife. He interprets some words of his wife that he should meet the president of the US and assure him, 'My name is Khan and I am not a terrorist'. Like Forrest Gump, he croses and re-crosses America, meeting a group of Christian black people in a small town in Georgia, eventually helping them when a hurricane strikes. In the meantimes, Khan has experienced arrest and some inhuman interrogation and, by accident, becomes a national figure.
The overt emotion in Indian film-making is akin to the heart on sleeve sylte of American storytelling. More reticent tastes might find the strong and unabashed feelings too much. A pity, because the film invites western audiences to empathise with this different culture and approach to life, with its emotional message and appeal – and a challenge, especially to American audiences, but not exclusively, to look beyond narrow national and culturial confines.
NA PUTU (ON THE PATH)
(Bosnia, 2010, d. Jasmila Zbanek. Competition)
In her Golden Bear award winning film (and winner of the 2006 Ecumenical Award), Gbavica, writer-director, Jasmila Bjanik, raised the issue of women raped during the 1990s Balkan wars and the fate of children from the rapes. The film contributed to changes of the law in Bosnia.
Four years later, she looks at Sarajevo and Bosnian society to examine how it has dealt with re-building. How much does the West influence Bosnian life – and many secularised Muslims – with its more open morality, its materialism and its sense of personal freedom? How much does traditional Islam influence modern Bosnia? And, more to the point here, how does a renewal of stricter living of Islam which intends to purify (as well as isolate) the devout while emphasising the dominance of men and the subservience of black-clad women wield an influence?
These themes were to the fore in Berlinale films about the Berlin Turkish community, Shahada (Faith) and Die Fremde (When You Leave).
This film focuses on Luna, a flight attendant, modern, pretty, comfortable, and her partner, Amar, a flight controller with a fondness for drink and joviality. When suspended for an error, he literally crashes into a friend from the war years who offers him a job, teaching computers, at a camp for a Muslim group of very strict observance. Amar becomes absorbed in this new way of life, an antidote, with religion, prayer, control, to his life during the war and after. Luna cannot understand this at all.
The screenplay presents the options clearly, detailing manners, customs, clothes, music, rituals, to make their point. But the key issue is marriage according to ritual and pregnancy within marriage.
On the Path (of Islam) also means pregnancy, the situation in which Luna eventually finds herself. It shows how change is occurring and how resistance to change (and western permissiveness) is also taking hold.
OTOUTO (ABOUT HER BROTHER)
Japan, 2010, d. Yoji Yamada. Closing film)
Director Yoji Yamada directed this film in his late 70s. Like the slightly older Clint Eastwood, he has come to know human nature over a long period and tell a movie story well.
His previous film, Kabei – Mother (a SIGNIS award winner in 2009) covered the period from 1938 to the end of the war and us into the detail of the lives of a family and the hardships of those difficult times, both Japan's vainglorious ambitions and its defeat.
This film highlights events of the 1950s to the present, opening with a collage of significant happenings, pacts, transport disasters and the changing attitudes of the Japanese as the 20th century wore on and they experienced greater independence.
However, the focus is on a mother, a fine woman, a widow, a pharmacist in a quiet Tokyo suburb (facing the incoming supermarkets threatening small and personalised businesses). She has a daughter who is about to be married.
And the title character? Well, to all intents and purposes, and in most people's estimation, he is a buffoon and a nuisance. And we see him at the wedding reception (to which he was not invited but came), after more than a few quick drinks, disrupting the event with his dramatic performance and collapse. He drinks, he gambles, he is a would-be actor. He borrows money and spendthriftly wastes it.
And yet... He knows he hasn't grown up. He exasperates his sister and his niece. His sister, with huge magnanimity, repays a large debt to his woman friend.
But, when he is dying – and the film does not hurry the death scenes – the managers of the shelter who have taken him in, treat him with fellowship and dignity. And his sister is there to care for and love him.
Every person, the film movingly reminds us, despite everything, is worthwhile.
(US, 2010, d. Nicole Holfcener. Out of Competition)
Nicole Holfcener has made several comedies, contemporary comedies of American manners, with a range of female characters, their issues, their concerns, the details of their lives (Lovely and Amazing, Friends with Money). Please Give is in the same vein. Its 90 minutes pass quickly, giving the impression that this is a series of light anecdotes. Along with the light touch is a more serious vein of felling bad about the marginalised (socially, physically) but not knowing how a comfortable furnishings shop owner should manage this concern and act on it in practice. And the screenplay is sometimes sharply barbed which has us smiling though we disapprove of some of the characters who utter them.
The cast also sustains interest in the anecdotes, especially the reliable Catherine Keener as Kate, wife and mother (with Oliver Platt doing a relaxed but ambiguous turn though surprising and disappointing himself with some of his behaviour as the husband). Sarah Steele is their self-conscious, bad-skinned and sometimes thick-skinned concerning those in need, fifteen year old daughter. Next door is cantankerous 91 year old Andra, looked after by a shy granddaughter (a charming Rebecca Hall) and barely tolerated by the other granddaughter (Amanda Peet getting lots of the harsh lines).
Please Give won't make many demands. It passes time entertainingly but it is more than a time-passer.
(Australia, 2010, d. Patrick Woods. Panorama)
Bad day at Red Hill.
19th century outback Australia was a frontier which many have compared with the American West. John Hillcoat's The Proposition (2005) was a striking case in point. Would it be possible to make the same comparisons for anywhere in Australia in the 21st century? Outback, of course. But what about the Victorian high country around Omeo?
Red Hill shows that it can – and uses the conventions of horses, prison escapes, guns and shootouts, along with cars, radio phones, to advantage. It is the work of Patrick Hughes, a first feature which he wrote, produced and directed in only 40 days. For quite an elaborate plot and use of outside locations, this is an achievement and Red Hill was selected for the Berlinale Panorama section and was well reviewed.
The action takes place over a day and a night. It is the first day on the job for Constable Shane Cooper who had transferred from the city to a quiet country town to help the health of his heavily pregnant wife. It all seems very ordinary, especially when he listens to the police chief at a pre-breakfast town meeting bemoaning the changes and the likely death of the town.
Cooper's first job is to ride a horse to investigate a mauling of stock – allegedly by a rogue panther descended from animals who had escaped from a travelling circus. The panther makes later symbolic appearances.
However, if we had been listening attentively to the incidental television reports at the police station, we would realise that the film is being set up for a confrontation between an escaped prisoner and the local police.
However, the condemned murderer is an aboriginal brumby tracker who was found guilty of killing his pregnant wife and attempting to kill the police chief. So, as now might be expected, it is a bad day at Red Hill, the police mounting a road blockade and then a hunt, Shane confronting Jimmy Conway, the prisoner, High Noon style shootouts in the main street, ambushes and a final showdown.
The aboriginal issue is the question – as might be guessed about a 2010 film. All is not as it might seem and truth will out.
Tom E. Lewis, more than thirty years after he appeared as Jimmy Blacksmith, is once again an iconic aboriginal figure, his face half-scarred by fire, making it like a horror-movie mask. He stands like an outlaw and speaks only one line, just at the end. Thirty years on from riding with Mad Max, Steve Bisley is the hardened police chief. And Ryan Kwanten, into international stardom in TV's True Blood, is a credible rookie, both naïve and pleasant.
A genre film with an Australian flavour, re-visiting Australian issues.
(Germany, 2010, d. Burhan Qurbani. Competition)
A film that provides a challenge to many devout Muslims.
The setting is Berlin, especially amongst the Turkish-German? community. It could be paralleled with a film set in a Catholic country that dramatises issues, especially moral issues, that are the subject of official statements and teaching but aspects of which are controverted, even by some devout believers.
The first issue to come up is abortion with a pill-induced illegal abortion for the daughter of the local Imam. Her pain is excruciating and compels her to do the famous bargain with God, to do anything for him as long as he heals her. This experience turns her into a zealot, blaming her father for being too tolerant and invoking apocalyptic language (and Revelation 12) and fierce punishment.
The second issue is infidelity. A policeman (Muslim) who had an affair with a pregnant woman whom he had accidentally shot in a raid for illegal immigrants promises his wife and son to be faithful, but...
The third issue is homosexuality. A sincere young African German who lives with his mother and works in a factory becomes aware of a deep attraction to a fellow-worker. They to to Quran school together and meet the Imam. The young man prays intensely against his urges and desires, becomes self-loathing, rejecting his friend. He goes to the Imam for advice. The Imam says that the Quran is a book for Islam as a religion of love.
The film, made by a student director, originally from Afghanistan and a practising Muslim, will ask audiences to test their beliefs and principles.
SON OF BABYLON
(Iraq, 2010, d. Mohamad Al-Daradji?. Panorama)
What would a 2010 movie made by Iraquis be like in the aftermath of the invasion and fall of Saddam be like? Here is the answer.
Son of Babylon is a simple film in outline, focusing on survivors, a grandmother form Kurdistan travelling south with her grandson to try to find her son, the boy's father, a musician who was conscripted to fight in 1991 by the Baarth administration and then imprisoned.
The setting is April 2003, three weeks after the fall of Saddam.
What is essentially an Iraqui road movie becomes the opportunity to remind the Iraqui audience of what it was like in those days: the bombings, the American roadblocks, people searching for loved ones, the finding of mass graves – and the helicopters hovering overhead.
The grandmother speaks only Kurdish, a solemn devout woman. The actress who plays her is still missing her husband in real life, searching for him for 22 years, so the performance is truly heartfelt. The boy is one of those naturally talented performers, lighting up the screen.
The film shows the relationship between the old woman and the boy as she struggles to communicate, as he impetuously acts like a boy and runs off at times. Incidental characters like the driver who gives them a lift, a Baghdad urchin who sells cigarettes in the street, a bus driver, the mosque imam and Musa, a former soldier from the south who had been forced to participate in northern massacres and is trying to atone, all offer a more rounded picture.
After years of headlines, TV coverage of the invasion and the subsequent years, the terrorism and the suicide bombers, it is still important to communicate with the world via storytelling so that the feeling behind the reports comes to life and makes an impact.
(Denmark, 2010, d. Thomas Vinterberg. Competition)
A Danish drama blending grit and sentiment. It is the story of two brothers who experience both joy and trauma as young boys with their alcoholic mother and their loved baby brother.
The film tells its story in two parts covering the period of about a month or two in grey and snowy Copenhagen.
First, we glimpse the life of Nik, the older brother, who is full of anger and resentment and just out of prison. But, he is, as we know from the opening, capable of deeper feelings. Secondly, we see the younger brother who is a follower, who loves his little son dearly but is an unreformable and deceitful drug addict.
So, it is two tragic slices of life which intersect. The theme of children offers a sad but not hopeless ending.
WHEN I WANT TO WHISTLE, I WHISTLE
(Romania, 2010, d. Florian Serban. Compeition)
The Romanian cinema of the first decade of the 21st century continues. With a capacity for choosing down-to-earth contemporary stories of post-Communist Romanian society, the films have been acclaimed worldwide and have become festival favourites. This film won the Jury Prize in Berlin.
It has a prison setting, a jail for younger offenders. With an eye for the detail of day-by-day life in this institution, the director (as he did in real life with his cast of many actual prisoners playing life-like roles) has immersed us in this world. The same power and hierarchical games are played. Warders can be brutal. But these are young men whose life is still ahead of them. The drama focuses on an 18 year old youth, Silviu, on the eve of his release after four years. He is more genial than many of the others but is trying to resist being provoked to ensure his freedom.
A visit from his little brother whom he raised because his father was in hospital and his mother worked in Italy leads to a confrontation with his mother so that she does not repeat her neglectful treatment of Silviu.
But, calm release, as we guess, is not going to be easy and the film builds to a melodramatic climax as well as a quiet culmination.
At first,this seems an ordinary enough film but the performances (his first) by high school student, Geroge Pistereanu, gets to the audience and by the time his mother visits him and tempers and resentment flare, we are fully involved.
An effectively realised contemporary social drama.
A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP
(China, 2010, d. Zhang Yimou. Competition)
In this era of international remakes of films, were a competition to be held to suggest the least likely combination, a sure winner would be celebrated Chines director, Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, The Road Home, Hero) re-making a Coen Brothers film. But, Zhang going back to the Coens' first film, Blood Simple, here it is.
After a series of stages in an illustrious and colourful career, a highlight being the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, Zhang Yimou can do what he likes. He has obviously decided to amuse himself and amuse his audience. At the time that Blood Simple was released in 1985, Zhang Yimou was a cinematographer with an eye for beauty, colour and composition. His first series of films was a fine evocation of Chinese domestic history. In the late 1990s, he directed more quiet and simple masterpieces, Not One Less and The Road Home. Whether influenced by the awards and acclaim for Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he embarked on a new phase with spectacular and exquisitely designed epics, Hero, House of a Thousand Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower.
In the meantime, the Coens have shown an extraordinary versatility in subject, style and genres and have won many awards. These careers highlight the range of cinema, Chinese and American, in a quarter of a century.
Zhang has taken the basic plot of Blood Simple and transferred it to an exotic and exotically-landscaped China. At times, it is farcical – the hero is a klutz and accident prone. He and the noodle shop servant offer clumsy comedy, except for a wonderful display of pasta-twirling. The boss and his wife are melodramatic. The local police chief is cross-eyed.
However, the corrupt and conniving officer is played straight and gives the bizarre proceedings more gravitas than they deserve and provides effective suspense and drama for the Chinesisation of the Coens.