The around-the-world-in-11-days tour that was the 2009 Berlin International Film Festival started right at home, with a border-hopping Hollywood thriller (The International) by a German director (Tom Tykwer), which opens with a scene set at Berlin’s sprawling Hauptbahnhof train station. From there, it was off to Louisiana for In the Electric Mist, directed by France’s Bertrand Tavernier, adapted from a piece of American pulp fiction and featuring Southern dialects that begged English subtitles. Then to The Hague for Storm, German director Hans-Christian Schmid’s overly earnest docudrama about the United Nations war-crimes tribunal, featuring a cast of Brits, Romanians and New Zealanders speaking a mix of English, Bosnian and Serbian; to New York, Bangkok and Manila for Mammoth, Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s risible stab at a Babel-style cross-cultural jigsaw; and to Paris (by way of Italy and Germany) for Greek director Costa-Gavras’ absurdly naive immigration drama, Eden Is West.
Finally, it was back to Berlin, which occupies the unlikely central role in Theo Angelopoulos’ The Dust of Time, a touching if uneven second chapter in the master filmmaker’s planned trilogy about the dispersal of Greek emigrés throughout Europe and the Americas. Whereas the first film, 2004’s The Weeping Meadow, was filmed with a cast of Greek-speaking actors, now two of those same characters are played by French stars Michel Piccoli and Irène Jacob, joined by Willem Dafoe as Angelopoulos’ familiar onscreen alter ego (previously rendered by the likes of Marcello Mastroianni and Harvey Keitel). For better or worse, everyone speaks English here, too.
But if this year’s Berlinale was dominated and ultimately defined by polyglot international coproductions that, as one British colleague joked, might have been rated “G” for globalization, the festival’s most memorable offerings came from filmmakers who looked no farther than their own backyards for inspiration. Indeed, in a year when famed Chez Panisse chef and local-farming advocate Alice Waters joined Tilda Swinton and director Wayne Wang on the official competition jury, these films could be considered the “slow cinema” alternative to Berlin’s many one-size-fits-all art-house unhappy meals.
One movie content to carry the weight of a few characters — instead of the world — on its shoulders was Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly, a classically structured melodrama set during the seaside vacation of a group of old college friends. The movie’s early scenes have something of Chekhov to them, as the vacationers arrive at the ramshackle beach house, mending broken windows and doors while rekindling old friendships and rivalries. The lone interloper in the group is Elly, a teacher invited along by the enterprising Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), who wants to pair her with her newly divorced friend Ahmad, who’s flying in from Germany for the weekend. Then, midway through the film, Elly abruptly vanishes, setting into motion an escalating series of deceptions and disquieting revelations concerning both the missing woman and those around her.
It’s one of the constants of festivals that, every few years, a group of films from some developing or cinematically long-dormant country momentarily captures the world-cinema spotlight, only to be ushered off the stage as soon as some new “new wave” tickles the fancy of critics and programmers. In the 1990s, driven by the international acclaim of films by Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, et al., Iran was very much one of those global superstars, while today it’s the (re-)emerging cinemas of Romania, Mexico and various South American countries that are all the rage. Yet, a film like About Elly suggests that there are still compelling Iranian voices to be heard. Farhadi (who won the Berlin jury’s Best Director award) may not be a particularly bracing stylist, but there’s an undeniable pleasure to be had from his emphasis on character and story (an art-film rarity in this age of fashionable minimalism) and from the very fine performance of Farahani, who has been banned from leaving Iran ever since her appearance opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies.
Another set of vacationers populates German director Maren Ade’s Everyone Else, which unfolds in the hills of Sardinia, where Chris (Lars Eidinger) and his girlfriend, Gitti (the extraordinary Birgit Minichmayr), spend the summer in the sun while watching — as if helpless spectators to someone else’s drama — their own relationship variously bloom and whither. He’s an architect of great promise; she’s a music-industry publicist. Both relentlessly compare themselves to their friends and acquaintances, wondering if they’re on track to become the “right” sort of people, wondering if they are in fact “right” for each other. “Sometimes, I want so badly to be different for you,” she tells him one night. He, meanwhile, wrestles with feelings of creative failure, and the even greater fear of becoming a faceless member of the bourgeoisie (as represented by his unseen parents, whose beach cottage is awash in kitsch trinkets and 1980s pop music). Do the clothes — or the profession — really make the man (or the woman)? Does a certain affection for Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias singing “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” make you a tasteless sellout?
The most impressive film in the Berlin competition, Ade’s remarkable second feature (her first was the auspicious The Forest for the Trees) takes a familiar domestic situation and uses it to explore a complex range of social and class issues that make this simple two-hander come close to feeling like a defining portrait of an entire upper-middle-class generation — a movie that does for the ’00s what Richard Yates did for the 1950s. It’s a wonderfully free, in-the-moment work that confirms Ade as a standout of the loosely defined movement known as the “Berlin School,” whose members (including directors Christian Petzold, Thomas Arslan and Ulrich Köhler) make small, personal films deeply concerned with matters of individual and national identity, and who largely dwell in the shadows of the glossy, popular German hits (Downfall, Goodbye Lenin, The Lives of Others) embraced by international audiences and Oscar voters.
Which brings me back to Elly — or rather, Elley. Derek Elley, that is. The longtime London-based film critic for Variety, Elley dismissed Everyone Else in a 190-word review published mere hours after its first Berlin press screening; he described Ade’s film as “fuzzy filmmaking of the worst sort” and “an extraordinary choice for a competition slot at Berlin,” adding that, in his professional opinion, “pic is headed nowhere.” Under normal circumstances, I’d be loathe to call out another critic by name — especially a former Variety colleague — over a mere difference of opinion. But in Elley’s case, the circumstances are hardly normal. With increasingly vituperative vigor over the past decade, he has used the pages of the influential trade publication to attack great swaths of the most progressive and innovative contemporary world cinema — a scorched-earth policy that has left the Portuguese director Pedro Costa and China’s Jia Zhangke similarly burned in its wake, the latter having been panned by Elley so many times now that one can only wonder why he still bothers to see Jia’s films. Thankfully, in Ade’s case, the Berlin jury begged to differ, awarding Everyone Else the Grand Jury Prize and naming Minichmayr Best Actress. To which I would add that, in my own professional opinion, this “pic” will travel quite far indeed on the international festival and cinematheque circuit and, with luck, to art-house cinemas, too.
There was literal food for thought on display in Terra Madre, a feature-length documentary by Italian maestro Ermanno Olmi (The Tree of the Wooden Clogs), which begins as a somewhat rudimentary record of a 2006 slow-food food conference in Turin but soon ventures outside for a series of lyrical encounters with local growers in remote corners of India and Northern Italy. Meanwhile, a different connection between people and produce could be found in Peruvian director Claudia Llosa’s strikingly assured second feature, The Milk of Sorrow, whose main character, a timid and superstitious village girl named Fausta (the Modigliani-worthy Magaly Solier), believes she has been cursed by her mother’s breast milk and keeps a potato lodged inside her vagina.
The potato is at once a self-defense mechanism and a reminder of the 20 years of guerilla warfare and state-sponsored terrorism during which thousands of Peruvian women were raped and murdered. But the times they are a-changin’, for Peru and for Fausta, who takes a job as a housemaid in order to earn money for her mother’s funeral, whereupon she slowly begins to emerge from her shell. Despite the film’s superficial trappings of Third World miserablism and Von Trier–ian female martyrdom, Llosa (whose promising debut feature, Madeinusa, screened at Sundance in 2007) has her own wholly original, almost unclassifiable style that blends indigenous folklore with a discrete political subtext, sardonic dark humor and the ravishing compositions of cinemtographer Natasha Braier. When The Milk of Sorrow was announced as the winner of Berlin’s highest award, the Golden Bear, a festival shrouded in the gloom of globalization seemed to end on the hopeful note of a new harvest.