Berlin Film Festival: Rated "G" For Globalization

As earlier noted, the 2009 Berlin Film Festival opened with a Hollywood movie (The International),

directed by Germany's own Tom Tykwer and filmed in a half-dozen

countries around the world, then continued with a French movie (In the Electric Mist)

made in the U.S.A. with dialogue spoken in regional Louisiana dialects

that begged the need for subtitles. In addition, this year's official

Berlinale competition has included Storm,

German director Hans-Christian Schmidt's docudrama about the United

Nations war crimes tribunal in The Netherlands, featuring a cast of

Brits, Romanians and New Zealanders speaking a mix of English, Bosnian

and Serbian; and Mammoth, Swedish director Lukas Moodysson's stab at a Babel-style cross-cultural jigsaw, set between New York, Thailand and the Philippines. Still to come is The Dust of Time,

the latest from master Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos, here

reportedly working in English, Russian, German and Greek, with Willem

Dafoe in the lead.

Meanwhile, for the last two weeks, the North American box office has been dominated by Taken,

a French movie made in France with an English-speaking, Irish-born star

(Liam Neeson) that had already been released in most of the rest of the

world before it ever crossed the Atlantic. Qu'est-ce qui se passe?


made by actors and directors working outside of their national borders

and mother tongues are, of course, as old as the cinema itself, with

Hollywood having first been colonized by emigré filmmakers (Capra,

Griffith, Wilder) who went on to make some of the most iconic American

films. Likewise, there is the equally longstanding tradition of

American and British movies set in foreign cultures, but starring

predominately Yank and Anglo actors speaking anachronistically in

English (for recent examples, see Valkyrie, with its cast of British-accented Germans, and The Reader,

with its cast of faintly German-accented Brits). And whether now or

then, American moviegoers have paid such nuances little mind -- in

large measure because most Americans, whether at home or traveling

abroad, assume that everything from restaurant menus to movie dialogue

ought to be in English. I mean, if we're going to complain about the

lack of German accents in Valkyrie, why not mention that, by rights, everyone in Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner ought to be speaking Hungarian?


different about the crop of English-language international productions

at this year's Berlinale is that they largely take matters of language

and nationality as their very subjects. They could, one British

colleague has joked, be rated "G" for globalization. Or, better yet,

"P" for pedantic. That's certainly the case with Storm, which much like The International

seems hellbent on finding a multinational bogeyman to finger for all of

the world's injustices. In Tykwer's film, it's the global banking

industry; in Schmidt's, it's the UN, which pays predictable lip service

to the idea of bringing justice to bear on fugitive war criminals from

the Bosnian conflict, provided it doesn't take too long or -- God

forbid -- impede the breakaway Balkans' efforts towards EU membership.

"Do you watch those kind of movies, where the good always wins in the

end?" asks the potential star witness (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

star Anamaria Marinca) to the idealistic Hague prosecutor (Kerry Fox)

who's urging her to testify against a former Yugoslav Army commander.

From there, Storm becomes exactly one of those movies, complete with a

grandstanding finale in which our two crusading heroines create massive

disorder in the court and, by doing so, tip the scales of justice back

into balance.

Still, far better Schmidt's Erin Brockovich of the Balkans than Moodysson's Mammoth,

whose two-ton pretension is heralded by its own title, a reference to a

$3000 pen whose clear barrel contains pieces of mammoth ivory -- this,

in the movie's view, being the ultimate symbol of imperialist

decadence. That pen is used by an arrested-adolescent video game

designer (Gael Garcia Bernal) to sign the lucrative contract that will

allow him to keep up the mortgage on the chic SoHo loft occupied by

him, his ER doctor wife (Michelle Williams) and their young daughter.

Williams, fresh from Wendy and Lucy -- one of the only recent

films with something meaningful to say about America's haves and

have-nots --  here has little wiggle room as a contemptible bourgeois

who berates her live-in Filipina nanny for teaching the young'un

Tagalog, unaware that, half a world away, the nanny's own son is about

to stick his toe in the water of Manilla's underage sex trade. Let it

be said that Moodysson, best known in the States for his 2002 human

trafficking drama Lilya 4-Ever, has not yet run out of ways to humiliate his leading ladies.

Relievedly, given its own confluence of First World and Third, black skin and white, Islam and Christianity, London River (which

could be rated "T" for terrorism) almost always places its characters

ahead of its polemics, making for a small but heartfelt drama about an

African man (the excellent Malian actor Sotigui Kouyate) and a British

woman (Brenda Blethyn) who meet while searching for their missing

children in the aftermath of the 2005 London subway and bus bombings.

Directed by the French-Algerian filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb, who

previously made the Oscar-nominated Indigènes, London River sometimes

plays things a bit too broadly in the culture-clash and

racial-profiling departments, but still manages to render a nicely

understated snapshot of multi-ethnic life in the global city, without a

non-linear narrative or top-heavy title metaphor in sight.

Ironically, London River, which is mostly in French, seems a lot likelier to make its way to international art-house audiences than either Storm or Mammoth,

which are mostly in English. The instructive difference is that, where

Bouchareb's film feels personal and human-scale, the others seem

anonymous and monolithic -- movies more concerned with saving the world

than telling stories, hammered into existence by international sales

companies and co-production boards rather than by artists with singular


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