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Carmen in Africa?
Yes, plus Boston-like weather and fewer American films at the Berlinale
BY PETER BRUNETTE
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Berlinale's film festival's official Web site

 

Critics from around the world braved Boston-like weather last week in Berlin to see, dissect, and argue over the current crop of international cinema. American studio films were in short supply, and likewise the big-name stars who usually accompany them and who, truth be told, provide the most important reason for those filmsí placement in the Competition in the first place. One rumor circulating around the architecturally glamorous Potsdamer Platz, where the festival moved in 2000, is that hardball-playing Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick had cancelled one of the Competitionís American films, Heights, at the last minute when he discovered that the filmís star, Glenn Close, was going to be a no-show.

Berlin has traditionally played the role of ugly stepsister to Cannes, but this yearís Competition, though hardly spectacular, was solid and in fact the equal of any recent Cannes assemblage. Yet it was the standard-issue European art films, with two powerful exceptions, that disappointed the most. Les temps qui changent/Changing Times, by the uneven but often interesting André Téchiné, was touted for uniting Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Dépardieu, but it had so many uninvolving characters and so many unexplored plots that it quickly fell apart and stayed that way. Another disappointment was Les mots bleus/Words in Blue, a film about a young girl who refuses to talk, directed by French veteran Alain Corneau, who gave us the magnificent Tous les matins du monde back in 1991. Hannes Stöhrís lightweight One Day in Europe, which compiled four stories set in different European countries, all revolving around the Championsí League soccer final in Moscow (Deportivo La Coruña versus Galatasaray Istanbul? donít bet on it . . . ) and a variety of petty thefts, offered little more than the familiar bromide that underneath the veneer of a Babel of languages, weíre all really the same deep down.

The two formidable exceptions were De battre mon cúur síest arrêté/My Heart Skipped a Beat, from French director Jacques Audiard (Sur mes lèvres), and Anklaget/Accused, by the virtually unknown Danish director Jacob Thuesen. The former, an edgy crime film set in the Paris underworld and shot with a hand-held camera, is based on James Tobackís notoriously violent Fingers, which starred Harvey Keitel over a quarter-century ago. Its star, Romain Duris, should have won the Silver Bear for Best Actor but didnít. Anklaget, the last film shown in the Competition, was thought by many in the press to be its best offering, though a Competition Jury composed of the likes of German director Roland Emmerich, fashion designer Nino Cerruti, and German actress Franka Potente didnít agree. Set in contemporary Copenhagen, the film focuses on a husband and wife who are being destroyed by accusations of incest lodged against the father by the 14-year-old daughter. Kim Fupz Aakesonís script keeps you on the edge of your seat and never sure where the story is going to head next, but it also raises powerful social and ethical questions.

Other worthy offerings from around the world ó and yes, going to a film festival is a much more fun way of keeping up with current international events than reading the newspaper ó included U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, a version of Bizetís Carmen set in the teeming townships of South Africa and translated into Xhosa, a wonderful clicking-tongue African language. Although the singing was marvelous, the adaptation didnít quite work; nevertheless, the sight of a zaftig, nay, Rubens-esque Carmen dancing on a table top more than repaid the two-hour investment. In any case, the film worked well enough for the Competition Jury, which to the astonishment of all awarded it the Golden Bear, the Berlinaleís top prize.

Yoji Yamadaís Hidden Blade was a serviceable if undistinguished samurai movie, a genre that some of us can never get enough of, irrespective of a given filmís quality. Perhaps the biggest disappointment was The Wayward Cloud, from one of the most demanding filmmakers in the Chinese-speaking world, Tsai Ming-liang. Tsai is famous for his unconscionably long-held but ultimately hilarious (and often profound) takes in such recent films as What Time Is It There? and Goodbye, Dragon Inn, but many critics felt that The Wayward Cloud, which is about the making of porno films (but decidedly less fun than Boogie Nights), simply didnít hold up and was a seriously depressing experience to boot. The film did win the FIPRESCI International Critics Jury award, but this group is known for its often blind support of risk-taking films, good or bad. Much better, if more conventional, was Peacock, from mainland Chinaís Gu Changwei, a first-time director known principally for his cinematography in the likes of Ju Dou and Farewell My Concubine. Peacockís portrayal of three siblings in an ordinary Chinese family in the 1970s starts slowly but gradually gains in emotional power and symbolic depth. The film ended up getting the Silver Bear from the Competition Jury.

Since the height of the Cold War, however, the Berlinale has been chiefly known for the political bent of its films, and this yearís selection was no exception. World War II was as usual the subject of several films (one shudders to think that movie history would be cut by at least a third had WW2 never happened), including Marc Rothemundís solid, straight-ahead Sophie Scholl: Die letzten Tage/Sophie Scholl: The Last Days, which details the interrogation, sham trial, and execution of real-life anti-Nazi student Sophie Scholl, who was 21 years old when guillotined, along with other members of "White Rose" resistance group, in 1943. (This is something like the fourth film made on her life and death.) The film won Best Actress honors for its lead, Julia Jentsch, as well as Best Director for Rothemund, an anomalous choice given the conventionality of the project. Another film, this one from the festivalís Panorama section, was called Das Goebbels Experiment/The Goebbels Experiment and featured excerpts from the Nazi propaganda specialistís diaries (read by the mellifluous Kenneth Branagh) accompanying the standard visuals weíve all seen on the History Channel. Lutz Hachmeisterís effort was greeted sourly by German critics who were expecting something more "experimental" than this contextless traipsing through a maniacís private hallucinations.

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Issue Date: February 25 - March 3, 2005
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