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
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
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
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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