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Remembrance of Things Past: The 2008 Berlinale International Film Festival

Even in the heart of Potsdamer Platz — that clutter of wind-swept plazas and tightly-packed hotels, shopping malls, and high-rises near the confluence of east and west Berlin that looks like a modern American urban anywhere (only packed with Europeans) and serves as the de facto center for the Berlinale International Film Festival — where the past roared loud and clear amidst the din of international cinema’s hustling and bustling. Granted, a good part of film festivals’ raison d’etre is displaying what’s new and upcoming, and so it was that from February 7th to 17th Berlinale introduced a host of works from new and little-seen filmmakers hailing from all (well, most) corners of the planet.

At the same time, festivals like Berlinale are almost as much about the business end of things, such as the aggressive scheming happening over in the buzz-laden conference rooms of the concurrent European Film Market (EFM) — the hive of distribution dealmaking that’s arguably more important than anything happening at the open-to-the-public screenings. It was there that the business of getting films made is reported on so feverishly by the daily trades, the announcement of Scorsese’s Bob Marley project, deals rumored for Sam Raimi’s Ellen Page-starring horror film Drag Me to Hell and Oliver Stone’s film about George W. Bush, and early footage being screened from Steven Soderbergh’s first of two Che Guevara films, The Argentine.

But one of the things that Berlinale did particularly well in this, its 58th year, was keeping one eye cocked firmly on the cinema of bygone years while pushing headlong into the future. So, even as everybody rushed about trying to secure tickets to Madonna’s roundly-despised directorial debut Filth and Wisdom, Jose Padilha’s ultraviolent Tropa del Elite (already being billed as this year’s City of God), or There Will Be Blood (the latter complete with paparazzi scrum outside the Grand Hyatt to catch a glimpse of Daniel Day-Lewis), one could also indulge in all those Luis Buñuel films showing in the well-stocked retrospective, the America-in-Vietnam pictures (Catch-22, Winter Soldier) in the provocatively 1970s-centric ‘War at Home’ series, or the welcome number of rescued-from-oblivion works like The Exiles. It’s not that other festivals don’t ever engage with the past; Tribeca, for instance, does a good job with its series of old and little-seen chestnuts about New York. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine the hangers-on at Sundance crowding into a theater to watch Dusan Makavejev’s 1971 neo-Marxist sex satire W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, near the beginning of which the perky female narrator intones, ‘Comrade lovers, for your health’s sake, fuck freely!’

Makavejev’s infamous film first showed at Berlinale over three decades ago and in the interim has built up a deserved reputation as a fine example of utterly wigged-out 1970s underground film. Initially posited as a documentary on sex researcher Wilhelm Reich, W.R. () dutifully includes sequences shot in the small New England town where Reich (a quack in the first degree, but harmless enough) plied his theories about ‘orgones’ and orgasms. But this doesn’t necessarily account for the scenes of a mad bearded man in helmet and ragged overalls threateningly toting an M-16 around Manhattan, or the footage that pretends to be a Soviet Bloc ‘Sexpol’ propaganda film but is in fact a bafflingly twigged romp that mashes up sex and socialism to delirious effect. W.R. has far more going on than it knows what to do with, but the channel-surfing editing and giddy satire more than make up for the frequent bursts of utter nonsense in this warts-and-all Dadaist assault on sexual repression.

Another welcome work from the past was served up with The Exiles (), which premiered at Venice back in 1961 in a cut that is now thought lost, and just recently painstakingly restored by UCLA. Looking something like what early John Cassavetes would have come up with if he’d been hanging out in Los Angeles slums during the late 1950s, Kent Mackenzie’s nearly-forgotten 1961 film received a long-overdue (and enthusiastically received) revival at the fest. The black-and-white, neo-documentary film tracks a number of Native American Angelenos in the Bunker Hill neighborhood (long since razed by urban planning) through 12 hours’ worth of wandering, partying, and soul-searching. It drifts poetically to an end, but not before a fantastic nighttime scene in which the characters gather on a hilltop overlooking L.A. to drink, drum, and sing the old tribal songs. The Exiles is apparently going to make it to American theaters starting this spring by way of Milestone, which has previously done similarly worthy rescue jobs on classics like Killer of Sheep.

Of the newer works screening at Berlinale, there was the expected (though heavier than usual) pressure to get tickets to anything that had even the hint of a name director or star. One of these hotter tickets, and actually worth the rush, was Isabel Coixet’s Elegy () a commendably honest adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal. Ben Kingsley plays the Roth stand-in, a New York literature professor named Kepesh who habitually seduces his students, but only after they’ve turned in their grades (lessens the chances of sexual harassment charges). He falls unexpectedly hard for one, a demure Cuban beauty named Consuela (Penelope Cruz), and quickly collapses into jealousy and other old-age clichés. It’s a simple and occasionally sexist setup, but Coixet brings a welcome European clarity to the sexual gamesmanship, coaxing sublime performances out of everybody, including Patricia Clarkson as Kepesh’s longtime casual fling and Peter Sarsgaard as his resentful son. While the tear-wringing conclusion goes completely for broke, it’s at least nice to see a film generous enough to allow Dennis Hopper to play not just a sane person but a Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet, to boot.

In Majid Majidi’s The Song of Sparrows (), Karim, an Iranian father, finds himself unexpectedly out of work after one of his charges at the ostrich farm escapes, barreling across the sweeping green fields while Karim and his coworkers frantically race after. Following this comic opening, Karim’s life seems to go to pot, as he loses his job and becomes desperate, what with mouths to feed and a new hearing aid to get his daughter. But a trip to Tehran accidentally brings good fortune when a man, thinking Karim is a cabbie, jumps on to the back of his motorcycle and tells him to drive. Majidi’s artfully-composed film is a portrait of happenstance and per
severance, as the grumpy Karim comically harangues his long-suffering family and occasionally reaches the limits of his quite considerable endurance. With its sweeping cinematography, utterly affectless acting, and humane perspective, The Song of Sparrows was a treat in every sense of the word.

Employing a battery of amateurs so rough and unalloyed that one hesitates to even call them actors, Australian Benjamin Gilmour’s debut feature Son of a Lion () sets itself in the mountainous badlands of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier, a rough landscape that makes the Old West look like the Shire in comparison. The story is children’s morality tale template: Young Niaz doesn’t like helping his father Sher Alam at his gun shop; he’d rather learn to read. A leather-faced and flint-eyed former mujahedin who likes nothing more than making and shooting guns and smoking hash (which seems as common here as cigarette smoking), Sher Alam resists all attempts by well-meaning others to educate his son. Gilmour’s fierce dedication to authenticity is impressively well-maintained, but the film’s overly schematic plot and self-conscious performances make it something of more sociological than artistic interest.

Proving that, for all their well-demonstrated love of noir and murder, French filmmakers (well, any filmmakers) occasionally fall flat on their faces when refusing to respect the rules of the genre, Laetitia Masson’s Coupable () takes a snappy premise and some sharp imagery and seems determined to waste it. There’s a wealthy couple with glacial distance between them; husband ends up dead with a knife in his back, wife blames their chef, who has handy access to knives and is weird to boot. Masson circles around this murder, playing distracting and distancing games with various participants, almost all of whom are inexplicably obsessed with the chef, a drowsy-eyed adult child who lives in a foggy dreamworld. There’s impressive artistry here, particularly in the witty musical interludes and Masson’s jazzy and off-key editing riffs, but it’s swamped by the script’s refusal to dig beneath any of these characters’ quirky surfaces. What could have been a smart mystery in a minor Hitchcockian key becomes sheer tedium well before it’s through, a fact attested to by the numerous walkouts witnessed at one screening.

Claustrophobic in the extreme, Israeli filmmaker Natalie Assouline’s Shadida — Brides of Allah () is a rough-hewn video documentary shot inside an Israeli prison holding Palestinian women convicted of assisting or participating in suicide bombings. Following the rituals of this peaceful, dormitory-like space of metal bars and politely smiling women covered but for their faces, Assouline tries time after time to dig some sort of truth from the convicts, only to run up against the sociopathic serenity of the brainwashed, who allow not a shred of doubt or reflection into their hermetic, self-righteous world of ecstatic murder. Their smiling fanaticism is sharply contrasted against the one uncovered women Assouline interviews, who confides that she deliberately got arrested to escape her violent home life, and also that she is shunned by the others for not joining Hamas. Assouline cleaves to the heart of a messy subject, and likely to infuriate those on both sides; some will hate how she humanizes some of these women, while others will despise her for truthfully showing how some of these supposed martyrs (like the one who wants to bomb an entire hospital because the doctors there were not nice to her) are nothing more than homicidal maniacs given a pass by a handily convenient ideology.

While Brides of Allah proved a long festival truism, that the most worthwhile documentaries tend to rise out of the Middle East, that point was at least partially disproven by a couple of disappointing entries. The better of the two by far was Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi’s Heavy Metal in Baghdad (), a couple of New York magazine journalists’ account of their relationship with an Iraqi heavy metal band, Acrassicaudia. The Metallica-loving Baghdad band members themselves are a bighearted and charming group whose story goes from bad to worse — barely allowed to play under Saddam, they were now seen as practically infidels, and are eventually forced to flee as refugees to Damascus. But unfortunately the insistence of the filmmakers (particularly Alvi, a Brooklyn hipster whose world-weariness is so faux it seems practically store-bought) to insert themselves into the film continually undermines the impact of their (and our) appreciation of these headbanging survivors.

Much, much less interesting than Heavy Metal was Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss’s Full Battle Rattle (), which takes its setting at the Army base in the Mojave desert whose Potemkin Iraqi villages are used for the last round of training for U.S. soldiers being deployed overseas. Although there are many opportunities for insightful reporting on this quite surreal, what with Iraqi nationals role-playing as alternately peaceful and hostile civilians while U.S. vets gleefully play the bad guys, Gerber and Moss seem to assume that their subject is inherently interesting and so don’t push the story nearly as much as they should. Access could have been an issue, as the film never gets the opinion of the rank-and-file soldiers actually enduring the course, but the lack of basic context or sharp interviews keeps the film a History Channel choice at best.

Another documentary with far too much faith in itself was The Infinite Border (), in which director Juan Manuel Sepúlveda decides that endless shots of trains creeping through the Mexican countryside while overloaded with migrant workers catching a ride north, along with the odd bit of portentous voiceover about how we are all migrants, can substitute for actual filmmaking. Granted, occasionally there’s a snatch of dialogue from one of the workers (many of whom have crossed over from Honduras or Guatemala and are only in Mexico as part of their multi-thousand-mile-journey to America), and Sepúlveda’s camerawork is admittedly epic. But as a consideration of one of the largest migrations in human history, the film is hardly up to the task.

Somewhere between documentary, personal essay, and ghost story is Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg () — some of the screenings of which were memorably preceded by an Isabella Rossellini-directed short about the sex life of insects called Green Porno — a work about the soul and history of his native city that shows the Canadian auteur finally starting to break out of the (admittedly fascinating) creative box he seemed to have been shutting himself into. Much of the film unfolds in standard Maddin fashion as a hyper-impassioned blur of silent-film theatrics, repeated exhortations, and Oedipal obsessions. But later on, Maddin begins to stir in elements of the real world, impart
ing the city’s urban legends, inveighing against civic crimes perpetrated upon ‘snowy, sleepwalking Winnipeg’ with surprising vehemence (who knew, for instance, that the maker of Brand Upon the Brain! was such a hockey fanatic?). Although the whole doesn’t necessarily cohere, My Winnipeg does signal an enthralling way forward for a filmmaker of uncommon but sometimes too-narrowly-focused talents, who seems to have learned how to appreciate his personal history and to utilize the film styles of the past without being imprisoned by them.

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