Archive for the ‘BERLINALE’ Category

Sons (2024)

Dir: Gustav Moller | Cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen, Dar Salim, Sebastian Bull | Denmark/Sweden/France. 2024. 99mins

One of the best films at Berlinale 2024 was this glacially unnerving psychological thriller from Swedsh director Gustav Moller (The Guilty). It stars Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen as a dedicated prison guard who takes pride in her ethos of pastoral and rehabilitative care but finds herself out of her depth when taking on a new role in the high security wing where she becomes obsessed with one of the inmates, a vicious psychopath, serving time for murder. It soon emerges that Mikkel (Bull) has a connection to Eva and one that sees her taking risks and behaving in an increasingly unadvisable way towards him. In these unpredictable and oppressive surroundings the power base gradually shifts putting Eva and her colleagues in grave danger.

copyright Timo Kuismin

Moller and his co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen once craft a sinuous study of human evil that sees the prison environment is a challenging unpredictable one: an atmosphere of calm control can abruptly erupt into hostile and dangerous violence. Eva is made aware of this by her colleague (Dar Salim) who warns her about becoming too familiar with the inmates: “Some people are just beyond rehabilitation”. But Eva has another axe to grind and ignores his advice to her detriment in this robust and frightening character drama. @MeredithTaylor

BERLINALE | GOLDEN BEAR COMPETITION 2024

copyright Timo Kuismin

 

Henry Fonda for President (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir: Alexander Horwath | Documentary 186′

What Henry Fonda For President is most definitely not is a documentary on the level of a Blu Ray extra which is what most documentaries that look at iconic figures resemble these days and are devoid of ambition or intellect; two things that this film has in spades – written and directed by Alexander Horwath – who is a writer, curator and film historian.

Horwath has had a long career in the trenches as what Werner Herzog would describe as a ‘true soldier’ of cinema. In his career he has been the director of the Viennale (1992-97) and the Austrian Film Museum (2002-17). He also curated the documenta 12 film program (2007) and many other projects in the film and art world. His essays and books have, among other topics, addressed subjects such as Josef von Sternberg, Ruth Beckermann, Guy Debord and Austrian avant-garde cinema.

With this, his debut film which premiered in the Forum Section of the Berinale, he has stepped out from the dusty confines of academia and bravely put his head above the parapet and opened up to eventual brickbats by the deluded and most deserved acclaim for a near unique piece of cinema.

The film may be titled Henry Fonda For President, but it is as much about Fonda as it is about the American century. America is the force field of the film and is always waiting to be rediscovered. That means – of course – the cinema, the place where we can experience what Nathaniel Hawthorne once noted, American is something of “a country in the shape of a church”. That is one of the notions of the US State that Howarth returns to again and again: religion and its place in a country that has very high opinions of itself and thinks it is the exception to every rule.

A monument resembling a cathedral to the American century through the prism of a decent man, perhaps the man who when seen and experienced most would want to be. The film starts with his polar opposite and the single figure the film juxtaposes him against: Ronald Reagan. Not Reagan the actor but Reagan the politician and company man for US corporations and hyper capitalism.

The film then jumps to the 17th century and by virtue of Fonda’s particular family history: the early migration of the Fondas from Holland to America, later from the East to the Midwest, and from there to New York City and California. As well as the director’s voice-over he relies on the last interview Fonda gave to Lawrence Grobel in 1981, before he died a year later. In these interviews we come across a man being brutally honest, not so much about cinema but of the men taking America down a path that has led to Trump and the near death of American democracy: Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.

The film’s formalism has a twin in Steve McQueen’s Occupied City, in the sense that they both look at contemporary space in a manner of a psychogeographer. We are taken time and again from places that appear in Fonda’s films then and now, whether Drums Along The Mohawk, Grapes of Wrath and My Darling Clementine. Other than his own films, though, the filmmaker – as you would expect – is more interested in philosophers, whether Paine, Thoreau, Tocqueville, Emerson and Fuller.

Bertold Brecht once said,”Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes”, that is what stayed with me after over three hours sitting with this epic piece of work. Both then and more importantly the present. @d_w_mault

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | FORUM 2024

 

Who do I Belong to? (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir: Meryam Joobeur | Cast Salha Nasraoui, Mohamed Hassine Grayaa, Malek Mechergui, Adam Bessa, Dea Liane
Tunisia / France / Canada 2024 | Arabic, Subtitles: English, German | 117′

Maryam Joobeur makes a visually stunning debut with this Berlinale competition title that mixes professional actors with newcomers to tell another tale about events in the ‘Monde Arabe’ this time with elements of magic realism. On the sandy shores of northern Tunisia Aïcha (Salha Nasraoui) and her goat-farmer husband Brahim (Mohamed Hassine Grayaa) live a peaceful existence in amongst the dunes where they seem content with their sons Adam (Rayen Mechergui) and Amine (Chaker Mechergui).

Theirs is a modern household although Brahim definitely wears the trousers although Aïcha soon emerges as a matriarch to be reckoned with. “Women speak in this community” announces Brahim when their long lost son Mehdi (Malek Mechergui) returns to the fold with a mysteriously mute, burka-wearing wife called Reem (Dea Liane) who has blue eyes and an advancing pregnancy. Mehdi has been fighting for ISIS in Syria and appears to have rescued Reem from a terrible fate at the hands of ISIS. The dumbstruck Reem is clearly still traumatised by events which play out in a gruesome sequence.

DP Vincent Gonneville’s close-up camera focuses intensely on the actors’ faces. This is resolutely arthouse fare and the dialogue in as sparse as the windblown vegetation in the desert location where life often drifts into surrealism amongst the whispering dunes. There is some violence here to contrast with the dreamlike status quo in this haunting and original piece of filmmaking. @MeredithTaylor

BERLINALE GOLDEN BEAR | BERLINALE 2024

The Strangers’ Case (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir: Brandt Andersen | with Yasmine Al Massri, Yahya Mahayni, Omar Sy, Ziad Bakri, Constantine Markoulakis | Jordan 2024 | Arabic, English, Greek, Subtitles: English, German | 97′ | World premiere | Debut film

According to the Berlinale festival blurb it was our very own bard William Shakespeare coined the phrase ‘The Strangers’ Case’ in reference to the plight of migrants all over the world. This apparently inspired first time feature director Brandt Anderson to make a film about a tragedy of  refugees.

The Strangers’ Case is a gripping if schematic film that centres on a Syrian family in Aleppo whose predicament will change the lives of five different families. In the midst of it all is Amira, an Aleppo-based paediatric surgeon and her daughter who find themselves swept into a dangerous but familiar tale when they are buried by a bomb from the civil war raging in their country.

Managing to escape the ruins of their home they secure a place on one of those un-seafareing dinghies run by a criminal trafficker/criminal (the muscular Cy ). On the same boat trip is another Syrian family who have opted to leave their place in a migrant camp in order to get to Europe. The criminal who organises their boat transfer, for a hefty fee, is also responsible for a son who he leaves behind.

The Texas born director certainly masters his material in a slick and confident debut that certainly provides compulsive viewing although the narrative tends to be simplistic with characterisations falling predictably into baddie and goodie territory and a docudrama with a predictable ending. @MeredithTaylor

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2024

 

 

 

The Devil’s Bath (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dirs: Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala | Cast: Anja Plaschg, David Scheid, Maria Hofstätter | Austria / Germany 2024 | German, Subtitles: English | 121′ | Colour | World premiere

Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala delve into their country’s macabre past for this painfully drawn out if atmosphere horror story that often looks like a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.

The Devil’s Bath follows Goodnight Mommy as a profound and disturbing psychological true thriller, based on an unexplored historical episode in European social history that hails from Upper Austria in the 1790s, according to court records. The ‘Bath’ in question was a state of depression brought on by the rigours of everyday life, and many escaped this by committing murder and subsequently seeking a pardon from the Church which allowed them to commit suicide and receive a decent burial, rather than being cast out for eternity.

In a remote rural village, Agnes (Anja Plaschg), a poor peasant girl, finds herself imprisoned within the strictures of local expectations when she marries her husband Wolf, a man with nothing to offer but a stone hovel and a life of duty, religious dogma, a mother in law from Hell. And to make matters even worse, it turns out that Wolf is impotent in an era where child-bearing is the primary goal of marriage and womanhood. Barren women were treated with suspicion and often accused of witchery, so Agnes’s nuptial joy soon turns to misery.

Not surprisingly, she goes mad, unable to speak openly about  her plight, and for two long hours we feel her mental and physical pain in a film that chills to the bone with its overcast skies, dank settings and disgusting rotting fish motifs.

The horrific death of a baby at the hands of its mother, in the film’s ominous opening scene, serves as a warning sign that The Devil’s Bath is not going to be a barrel of laughs, but neither does it descend into the realms of sensationalism as a seething sense of dread builds, albeit at a snail’s pace. Festering wounds and putrefying flesh along with every kind of human deformity are often elevated to an art form in Martin Geschlacht’s camerawork (which won him a Silver Bear); but they are disgusting nevertheless and a stark reminder of what life was really like back then. There is beauty too in the misty mornings and Autumn countryside.

Agnes takes the baby’s death to heart and gradually becomes obsessed by having her own child. One particularly evocative scene sees her praying obsessively over a wax effigy of the Baby Jesus, that she steals from the local church, with a particularly ghoulish outcome. Morose and malingering, Agnes is a tragic figure, and the final scenes of this ghastly  period piece are truly shocking. @MeredithTaylor

SILVER BEAR – BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY | BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | GOLDEN BEAR 2024

 

Spaceman (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir: Johan Renck | Cast: Adam Sandler, Carey Mulligan, Kunal Nayyar, Lena Olin, Isabella Rossellini | USA 2024 | English, Czech, Korean, Subtitles: English, German | 106′

Are long-distance relationships sustainable? It’s a valid question, and one that US director Johan Renck ponders in this Berlinale Special Gala outing.

Spaceman is a strange, discombobulating film that tries to meld sci-fi with romantic drama and fails, despite the poignant efforts of stars Carey Mulligan, Adam Sandler and a hairy little creature called Hanuš, who has six eyes but a heart in the right place.

Based on the absurdist novel “Spaceman of Bohemia” by the Czech writer Jaroslav Kalfar, Spaceman explores how leaving a lover alone for too long can lead to negative navel-gazing and how – with a little help from our friends – we can put things into perspective. Or at least that’s the idea here.

Swirling around the edge of the solar system astronaut Jakub (a glum Adam Sandler) is on a distant six-month space mission away from his wife Lenka (Mulligan), expecting their first child. The two talk every day – on a special live link – but Lenka feels lonely and isolated and is on brink of ending it all despite her love for Jakub – shown in frequent flashbacks as she dances Terrence Malick style through flowery fields – and some persuasiveness on the part of her mother (Olin). Jakub senses the emotional distance between them when the phone line goes dead because his messages have been put on hold by Mission Control, headed by Isabella Rossellini (in cameo).

Then a gentle alien being enters his spaceship and the two settle into a chummy co-existence (after Jakub tries to kill the beast). There is much to enjoy here if you like purple nimbus cloud formations and Carey Mulligan – although she is sadly underused in this forgettable space oddity @Meredith Taylor  

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2024 

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Pepe (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir: Nelson Carlos De Los Santos Arias | 122′

Nelson Carlos De Los Santos Arias’ Pepe which unspools in the Berlinale Competition and has been described by artistic director Carlo Chatrian as its  least “classifiable” entry, which is high praise indeed when you look at the distinctive films that surround it in this year’s competition. Following on from this luminous film Cocote, which won the Signs Of Life Award at the 2017 Locarno film festival.

Very much a hybrid text that encompasses humanism, epic, essay and mythic folk tale; all told through the prism of a hippopotamus the humans call ‘Pepe’ and is adrift from the clutches of his owner: Pablo Escobar. We have been here before, of course, with numerous documentaries that have looked at the Columbian drug lord and his menagerie of wild animals that lived on his armed compound. This is a very different beast from those spurious basic works.

A voice that claims to belong to a hippopotamus. The Latin word hippopotamus is derived from the Ancient Greek hippopótamos, from híppos ‘horse’ and potamós‘river’, together meaning ‘horse of the river’. Sometimes what is represented is not supposed to be taken as what it appears; the horse of the river is here to do some heavy lifting. In what some would call zoomorphism, what we are looking at is the climate crisis, the migrant crisis, imperialism, post colonialism and of the destruction of late capitalism and its toll on the global South.

The voice is droll and of the kind that has seen too much, but is comes post death following it’s escape and journey down the Magdalena River where he will come to a brutal end that is the narrative that fits many that are othered by a populace terrified of what they cannot understand. Pepe remains in death the quintessential romantic, condemned to the corporeal.

The film enjoys itself and takes its time, it glides through many philosophical concepts within a hermetically sealed universe. The journey through the Magdelena seems like an exercise through South American literature particularly ‘The Apprentice Tourist’ by the queer mixed-race “pope” of Brazilian modernism: Mário de Andrade, even though he focused on the Amazon, but the reference makes poetic sense if not empirical sense.

At various points the film wanders off from the kinesis of the river and partakes in various human life, from beauty pageants and the emotional violence of destructive relationships that very obliquely connect to our eponymous hero. But far from a dying and deadened milieu, the Magdalena and its environs  is in fact brimming with life. This is emphasised with a dominant binary and linear ontology around life and death. The living and the dead are not fixed in a binary but bound together in an intimate, dynamic, circling dance. Decay and regeneration are two sides of the same coin.

The long, widening rivers of South America are very much horizontal and rhizomatic. As per Caribbean writer Edouard Glissant rhizomatic identity is unlike a root which grows vertically from one place, it grows horizontally, stretching out to meet other roots.

As the oral testament continues one thinks of the acclaimed Canadian author LM Montgomery who said, “Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it”. To speak is to make sense of our reality but it also shows the impulses and the limitations of existence.

It is so invigorating to see a young filmmaker who has ambition to spare: Where a lot of his contemporaries settle for shooting rabbits, he is only interested in hunting big game and the Socratic questions that come with that territory. One can only be excited for the journey where he’ll journey to next. @d_w_mault

SILVER BEAR – BEST DIRECTOR | BERLINALE 2024

Langue Étrangère (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir: Claire Berger | with Lilith Grasmug, Josefa Heinsius, Nina Hoss, Chiara Mastroianni, Jalal Altawil France / Germany / Belgium 2024 French, German, English, Subtitles: English, German. 105′

Clarie Berger’s latest: a ‘coming of age lesbian drama with a difference’ adds marital strife and political activism to the mix to concoct a heady brew that spills out in the summery corners of contemporary Europe:

Student exchanges often develop in unexpected ways, and although Claire Berger’s drama treads on familiar ground in its themes, invigorating performances from a talented cast, along with confident close-up and personal camerawork, make for an intoxicating watch (especially if you’re seated right up close to Berlinale’s main mammoth screen at the Palast).

Strasbourg and Leipzig get a welcome airing as the consecutive locations where relative newcomers Josefa Heinsius and Lilith Grasmug play the exchange students, joining their respective onscreen mothers, arthouse regulars Nina Hoss and Chiara Mastroianni, for some head-on clashes and tender heart-to-hearts,  although the drama’s final show-down doesn’t quite satisfy what has come before.

French teenager Fanny (Grasmug) gets short shift from her German pen-friend Lena (Heinsius) when she first arrives at Leipzig station: Lena and her mother (Hoss) are not getting on well after the breakdown of her parent’s marriage but these differences will soon bond the girls together in more ways than one when they partake of magic mushrooms during a party with Lena’s dorky boyfriend.

When Lena returns to Fanny’s home in Strasbourg to discover her parents – mother Antonia (Mastroianni) and father Anthar (Jalal Altawil) – are not exactly hitting it off either, the two troubled girls find more common ground and start to act out in rebellious ways claiming to be ‘anti everything’, with Fanny breaking the glass in an advertising hoarding and other acts of defiance.

Fanny, who has been bullied at school, at first seems the more vulnerable of the two but soon shows a malevolent streak with her vivid imagination causing Lena to question their friendship. But all this soon boils down to the regular ‘teenage’ stuff. Langue Etrangere is compelling nevertheless. Hoss gets an interesting part that creates an entirely new persona as she breaks away from her Christian Petzold era. Mastrianni too gets to flex her muscles in a role that contrasts with her usual romantic dramas. @MeredithTaylor

BERLINALE COMPETITION | BERLINALE 2024

Scorched Earth | Verbrannte Erde (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir: Thomas Arslan | Cast: Mišel Matičević, Marie Leuenberger, Alexander Fehling, Tim Seyfi, Bilge Bingül | Germany 2024 | German, Subtitles: English | 101′

This simple but striking thriller takes us back to the film noir fare of the 1940s to show that crime doesn’t pay at the end of the day. But will our antihero still get the girl – or indeed – the booty?

Following In the Shadows, Scorched Earth is the second part of Thomas Arslan’s Trojan trilogy. It sees his career criminal – a morose Mišel Matičević – back in Berlin, and looking to finance his future with another gig. But Berlin has changed in the interim (a bit like the Berlinale itself) and his old contacts are faded and thin on the ground. And the digital world has rather taken over in place of brawn and suitcases full of cash.

Slick locations and some impressive chiaroscuro camerawork still make this gripping in an ‘old school’ way and the plot – revolving around the theft of a pricey painting – is compelling yet easy to follow and doesn’t take the easy way out. A solid little classically-styled thriller with a modern twist. @MeredithTaylor

PANORAMA AUDIENCE AWARD COMPETITION | BERLINALE 2024

Sleeping with a Tiger (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir/Wri: Anja Salomonowitz | Austria, 2024 106′

A new docudrama raises the profile of Austrian avant-garde painter Maria Lassnig (1919-2014) considered one of the most important artists of the 20th/early 21st century.

Radical in its approach, Lassnig’s “body awareness paintings” focused on her own life as a woman. It celebrates the female body not from the traditional male gaze of beauty, but from the female experience of  being a sexual and biological force, exploring gender conflicts, pain, and even the fear of cancer. Lassnig had a special way of dealing with colour she termed “colour vision”. Unlike the often tortured images of her fellow Austrian expressionist Egon Shiele, Lassnig’s impressionistic art is on the whole rather easy on the eye with a gorgeous pastel allure despite the trauma it often depicts, highlighted with the use of red.

Modern artists are invariably depicted as tormented: van Gogh, Frida Kahlo and Edvard Munch. Lassnig was no different according to Austrian filmmaker Anja Salomonowitz who comes to Berlinale’s Forum sidebar with her fourth film, a decade after her debut Spanien (2012). This is an impressionistic take rather than a straightforward biopic. So, although it unfolds in chronological form, interweaving acted scenes and documentary, Birgit Minichmayr (The White Rabbit) plays the central role throughout the artist’s life from a young woman until the age of 94. Lassnig emerges as a prickly, intractable but intuitive character who often feels at odds with the art world but stands by her art to the very end. Throughout Salomonowitz attempts to probe Lassnig’s core being and is keen to stress her mental state and her struggle in the male-dominated art world, which culminates in critical acclaim, the artist often seemingly rejecting her success.

From childhood, Lassnig is seen in conflict with her mother, and this troubled maternal relationship bleeds into Lassnig’s future in Vienna when she is drawn, via the capital’s Art Academy, into the local post-war art scene. Morose and strong-willed, her own body and biological state becomes a focus for her work making it highly original. Intuitively, she judges the value of her painting long before the art world makes its verdict.

Later, as an accomplished artist with her own exhibition, she is seen complaining about the hanging of her paintings (‘they are too low’)- an art in itself – and demands a rehanging, threatening to withdraw her work. The gallery assistant, claims this is the best way of to sell the paintings. But Lassnig remains faithful to her vision.

Anja Salomonowitz’s homage to the artist certainly ‘fleshes out’ the “body awareness” of Lassnig’s art but I can’t help wondering whether the film would have worked better as a straightforward documentary. Visiting Vienna for last year’s Viennale Film Festival I was captivated by Lassnig’s paintings but I left this film feeling unsettled (although not surprised) by Salomonowitz’s take on the woman herself, and her cinematic interpretation of a brave and pioneering artist whose real life was sadly tortured. Sometimes art is better left to speak for itself @MeredithTaylor

BERLINALE FORUM 2024 | 15 -25 February 2024

Comme Le Feu (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir: Philippe Lesage | Canada/France 2024 | 161′

The Generation sidebar of the Berlinale seems perfect for filmmaker Philippe Lesage, it is a section that facilitates exchanges between audiences and filmmakers especially focusing on dialogue with younger audience members. Lesage is most well known for the two loosely linked films The Demons (2015) and Genesis (2018) which both launched the international career of Théodore Pellerin. The director has focused on the travails of Quebecois teenagers and their distant parents and with Comme Le Feu he is back on familiar ground that unfortunately is returning an ever more diminishing recrudescence.

Teenage Jeff is invited by his friend Max to travel deep into the woods and stay at the isolated estate of acclaimed director Blake Cadieux. He has high expectations for the trip: Cadieux is an artist he greatly admires – plus Aliocha, Max’s older sister, with whom he is secretly in love, is also coming.

The film opens with a muscle memory of visual references: long following shots with a gliding camera as a car travels through the bucolic countryside accompanied by a deep drone-inflected score that indicates a pensive trip is to come. By the time the journey ends we will be at a lake where we meet a man standing by a sea plane. This is acclaimed director Blake Cadieux (Arieh Worthalter), who is meeting an old colleague: Albert (Paul Ahmarani), his son, daughter and Jeff. By the interactions from the ‘adults’ we become aware of some of the oncoming battles for Alphaness between two men who have left a lot unsaid, that will slowly unravel during a very long 161m.

The scenario is of course familiar to the classic French Country House genre, but not the farce of Feydeau or the state of the nation treatise à la Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu but something else entirely, something very Quebecois. Lesage makes claims that border on cliché, that of the hostile forest and the interior of the cabin becoming the liminal space where there is a youthful search for ideals and freedom while confronting the wounded egos of the jaded adults. There are the motifs of the country house updated, hunting (with both rifles and bow & arrows), dinner, alcohol and unspoken grievances bubble up and destroy the supposed relaxed atmosphere.

This is centred on the two best scenes in the film that are formally the same, a fixed camera at the head of the table as the two adult male protagonist poke and prod each other until they start orally fighting for control and supremacy, while this is on-going the teens sit in stony silence. These two scenes are beautiful in their emotional violence with Paul Ahmarani a clear stand out, what with his pathetic neediness and long-held grudge with his former collaborator Blake.

Other than these two scenes everything else is signposted by a broad schematic screenplay that tries to cover far too many bases. From spurned teenage love, to emerging female sexuality, to creativity in crisis and the inability to settle. By the last act the film has completely come undone with characters acting to the edicts of the screenplay rather than in an emotionally honest manner. This comes with death, dream sequences and a hurt dog.

After the potential promise we started with, we are left with a squalid melodrama that seems snatched from an even more mediocre genre film. @d_w_mault

GENERATION 14 PLUS | BERLINALE 2024

Arcadia (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir: Yorgos Zois | Cast: Vangelis Mourikis, Angeliki Papoulia, Eleną Topalidou | Greece/Bulgaria/USA, 99′

One of the first changes to the Berlnale that artistic director Carlo Chatrian made when he unveiled his first edition of the festival in 2019 was a new section entitled Encounters which was very much in the vein of the programming choices at his previous job: the head of Locarno. It is in Encounters that Arcadia premieres during the 2024 edition of the Berlinale.

Arcadia is the sophomore title from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Zois whose debut Interruption premiered at Venice in 2015. Following on from that film he is continuing to look at existence through the prism of the heritage of Greek myth and Odyssian Circular journey of love, loss, sex and death.

Formally more experimental and with a tone harbouring discombobulation that feels akin to slowly sinking through quicksand, it brings to mind Churchill’s maxim of the Soviet Union: “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

We open on an educated middle class couple driving through the Greek countryside in the evening and discover they are married doctors, and that the husband Yannis (Vangelis Mourikis) is en route to identify a woman’s body in the aftermath to a car crash. His wife Katerina (Angeliki Papoulia), is along for the ride – it seems.

After doing their duty at the hospital they head to a holiday home to sleep. At this point when Yannis falls asleep the film starts to slowly uncover its true self. Katerina can’t sleep and discovers a youth in one of the bedrooms in a sequence that cryptically tries to explain the couple’s reality and why they can’t take their shoes off (which becomes a motif with a delightful payoff at the close). From here we are surrounded by the essence of sex in all its disguises. Sex, in fact, will become both an aid to memory, remembering and the subject of which most people tell lies.

The youth, acting like Beatrice guiding Dante through the forest in canto 2 of ‘The Inferno’, takes Katerina to the Arcadia: a bar come garage full of naked Rubenesque bodies fucking à la Carlos Reygadas. It becomes clear we are in some sort of limbo for the dead, or what in Greek myth was the in-between state called the ‘Fields of Asphodel’ before the journey to either Elysium/Heaven or Tartarus/Hell. The denizens of Arcadia have nothing to do but strive to remember, fuck, sing and drink.

When in a place of unreality, whether that be dream space or somewhere metaphysical, there is the danger of becoming nothing more than a series of non-sequiturs. But to seek explanation in a film like this defeats the object of what it is and how it exists and creates its world. There is of course a temporal vacuum that shows how a film is joined to reality: it reaches all the way out to it, but delimits the thinkable and thereby the unthinkable.

Through Katerina’s journey we encounter guilt, dead children, relationships destroyed by selfishness and carnal greed/erotic vagrancy. She is the one that needs to be released by the living: Yannis. As Emily Dickinson put it: Parting is all we know of heaven/And all we need of hell. We are then left with the perpetual contemplation of an elusive being that teaches us the art of loving the intangible. @d_w_mault

ENCOUNTERS 2024 | BERLINALE 2024 | 15 – 25 FEBRUARY 2024

 

 

 

 

 

 

Diaries from Lebanon (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir: Myriam El Hajj | with Joumana Haddad, Perla Joe Maalouli, Georges Moufarrej | Lebanon / France / Qatar / Saudi Arabia 2024 | Arabic, Subtitles: English | 110′ | Colour | World premiere | Documentary form

Lebanon’s ongoing conflict is complex. Over the years many filmmakers have documented various aspects of the nation’s continuing strife that seems to stem from internal struggles as well as external forces. All very confusing for the rest of the world: War and Lebanon have almost become synonymous in our collective consciousness.

Three people share their input in this new documentary from Myriam El Hajj, founder member of Rawiyat – Sisters in Film, a collective of women filmmakers from the Arab world. Diaries from Lebanon is her second documentary and premieres in Berlinale’s Panorama section. It takes us back to 2018 and brings together three voices. The first is a feminist writer, poet and activist named Joumana who stands for election to the Lebanese parliament, defying a political system that has been suffocating her country for 40 years. The film shows how Joumana is voted in, only to be fraudulently ousted the very next day, leaving her supporters furious and leading to more unrest and violent demonstrations in the streets of Beirut.

Another feisty woman, Perla Joe, soon becomes a symbol of this uprising, capturing the imagination of young people who feel increasingly marginalised in a place where war has become the only unifying force in their collective experience.

Meanwhile the past rears its head in the shape of Georges, a vociferous veteran of the Lebanese Civil War which lasted from 1975 to 1990. One of the original fighters, he lost a leg in the conflict but still believes in ‘the glory’ of war, rather than ‘the pity’ as Great War poet and soldier Wilfred Owen famously cited in 1917/18. Glory seems to be thin on the ground in this Middle Eastern nation, but the dream of peace and a worthwhile future is now the ultimate battle. @MeredithTaylor

PANORAMA 2024 | BERLINALE 15-25 February 2024

 

Memories of a Burning Body (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir: Antonella Sudasassi Furniss | Cast: Sol Carballo, Paulina Bernini, Juliana Filloy, Liliana Biamonte, Juan Luis Araya | Costa Rica / Spain 2024 | Spanish, Subtitles: English | 90′ | World premiere

Growing up in a repressive era in the Central American island of Costa Rica, when sexuality was a taboo subject, 68-year-old Ana, 69-year-old Patricia and 71-year-old Mayela developed their understanding of what it means to be a woman based on unspoken rules and implicit expectations.

In her first feature length documentary, Costa Rican filmmaker Antonella Sudasassi Furniss records the memories, secrets and longings of these three women who tell their stories off-screen.  another woman of their generation (Sol Caballo) acts out these experiences on screen. Memories is a rather trite is well-meaning docudrama that nevertheless succeeds in blowing away the myth that sex is all over by the menopause. 

The most important point Memories makes is that these women are now discovering the freedom to enjoy satisfying sexual encounters for the first time in their 60s and 70s after a repressed start to their love life that really didn’t set the night on fire despite offering marriage and children: A goal that fulfilled societal expectations but left them disillusioned. 

Sol Caballo, 65, found herself alone for over a decade, and missing sex and companionship. Harking back to the time when her first love sent her a ‘pre-sucked lollypop’, she tells how it served as a symbol of sexual lust because kissing was then forbidden for teenagers. Feelings of desire soon overwhelmed her as she was growing up, and she felt a terrible guilt for these repressed feelings which had no outlet. Sol then reflects on the shame of puberty often going into graphic details. It was a time when the nuns at her school instilled fear rather than understanding of the opposite sex. At the same time young men also felt shy and diffident around girls, leading to embarrassment and misunderstandings – so rather than a happy time this was one full of apprehension and worry.

All this plays out in beautifully crafted dramatised sequences picturing her character as a little girl growing into an adult and then getting married to a fumbling husband who went on to beat and rape her after their child was born. Fortunately there is a happy ending for Sol’s character in the modern day.

Sudasassi Furniss offers alarming insight into the realities of a Latin American society that was clearly still very repressed in the late 1960s, 1970s and even – hardly a long time ago. While in Europe 60 is now the new 40 for women, those in Costa Rica are now experiencing a sexual re-birth according to this revealing chronicle.

Memories of a Burning Body is a startling expose which also provides a wake-up call to all those in unfulfilling relationships who think that sexual pleasure is over at 60 plus; this film is here to tell you to that the joy can go on, and even begin later in life. @MeredithTaylor. 

BERLINALE 2024 | Panorama Audience Award winner 2024

The Great Yawn (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir: Aliyar Rasti | Cast: Mohammad Aghebati, Amirhossein Hosseini, Saber Abar, Mahin Sadri, Mehrdad Ziaie Iran 2024 Farsi, Subtitles: English 93′ Colour World premiere | Debut film | Debut film

The motto “It’s always better to journey than to arrive” is possibly the best way to describe this engaging debut feature from Iranian filmmaker Aliyar Rasti who has made it into the Berlinale Encounters sidebar after critical acclaim with his award-winning short In Between.

Dark and deadpan humour is one of the main attractions of his offbeat road movie that sees two unlikely blokes thrown together on a difficult mission in the style of Martin Brest’s Midnight Run (1988). Although the outcome may leave some viewers perplexed, the darkly deadpan humour and gripping storyline with its valid human insight carries a low-key political message of the kind the Iranians do well. And this makes The Great Yawn compelling from the start. Visually too it’s a winner with an extraordinary, atmospheric sense of place captured creatively in Soroush Alizadeh’s inventive camerawork. Quite why this isn’t in the main competition line-up is as much of a mystery as the film itself. Perhaps the selection committee were as challenged as I was with the finale. 

After dreaming of a cave full of gold coins, Beitollah, a religious man, (Aghebati) sets up a series interviews to recruit a paid companion – preferably a loner with no religious scruples – to collect the ‘forbidden’ treasure from the cave, and so claim his half of the booty. Shoja (Hosseini), an un-prepossessing bearded type who claims ‘not to believe in anything’, is selected for the job. Absolutely skint, an amusing sequence sees him begging for a toothbrush, no one obliges.

So the two set off the next day as planned, Shoja with absolutely nothing but the clothes he stands in. The odyssey – that mirrors life and all its challenges – will take them to the farthest corners and central deserts of Iran on a arduous journey where they will sometimes come to understand one another, sometimes not, in their search for the right cave (aka ‘the universal truth’). They are continually dogged by a poor young boy on a motorbike who calls himself ‘the bastard’ but doesn’t understand how he got the name.

Shoja puts his absolute faith in Beitollah, who aids and abets him all the way in their joint mission. To get a bit of money they stay with a farmer and work in her paddy field. She tries to persuade Shoja to stay (everyone has left to work in the city), but he declines, committed to the task at hand. After various encounters they come across a Caravanserai where they stay the night. The inn’s owner decides to follow them on their search for ‘the great yawn’ aka Jacob’s cave, purportedly the location of their ‘holy grail’. Will they find the meaning of life – that’s for you to decide. Rasta’s film is all about trust, truth and human faith. It’s also highly enjoyable. @MeredithTaylor 

SPECIAL JURY AWARD EX AEQUO | ENCOUNTERS 2024 | BERLINALE 15-25 FEBRUARY 2024

 

 

Faruk (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir: Asli Ozge | Doc Turkey, Germany, France 97’

Faruk, a man in his 90s, is fighting fit. Turkish filmmaker Asli Ozge artfully captured this snapshot of life for her elderly father in Istanbul, a modern capital in a Western nation, with all the benefits and ills that now entails. Faruk highlights the plight of the elderly – not only in Istanbul but everywhere.

Faruk, straddling two centuries, struggles to make sense of today’s world: A venal place where robbery is commonplace; not just in the street but in the privacy of your own home. Asli shows how a perfect storm of events slowly destabilises her father’s equilibrium as an ageing man with considerable agency, still managing his own life. The film also explores a complex father daughter/relationship that leaves us puzzled, and even dismayed. 

In response to the effects of so-called climate change, the council is planning earthquake protection affecting the building where Faruk has continued to live, since the death of his wife, in a pleasant part of Istanbul.

Change comes when it emerges his home is up for demolition, despite a recent refurbishment; one that Faruk has already paid for. The other residents are keen to proceed, so after various meetings, Faruk agrees. But he is disappointed when reviewing the plans: The refurb switches everything round so the ‘French’ balconies are even smaller than before and the safety escape leads down from the master bedroom. More disruption in view for Faruk. Upheaval and life-altering events become more difficult to manage once we get older. 

The film paints a dismal picture of modern life in the Turkish capital: like everywhere nowadays petty theft and social incivility seems to be on the increase. During a residents’ meeting his neighbour is called away to be told her husband has died on the metro. And to make matters worse, he was robbed of his wallet and spent the day riding round before anyone raised the alarm. Faruk may be old but he is still capable, although his daughter offers to help him with a ‘power of attorney’. He assures her by agreeing to a medical test. Making his way unassisted, by bus and on foot, he goes to the doctor. In scenes that see him directly facing the camera, he answers the questions correctly. We really feel for Faruk, who is later pictured celebrating the New Year all alone with only champagne for companionship. He does a traditional Turkish dance while a mock-up video shows him dreaming of following a nude dancing girl into his kitchen.

Faruk looks on the bright side even in the face of disillusionment. We see him acquiescing to change, and reflecting on it philosophically. The new flat is drab and pokey, and he argues with his daughter’s cleaner who tries to throw away papers and family treasures in preparation for the move. Then snow arrives and an earthquake near the Aegean. His mobile ‘phone, a vital link to his daughter, then disappears, possibly stolen by door-to-door hawkers asking for charity donations, which he gladly offers. He leaves a ‘phone message to the thieves: his simple plea is heart-breaking; a pitiful reflection on humanity. This is the final straw for Faruk who decides to take a short holiday while his daughter is abroad trying to finance the film. 

We later see him back in Istanbul, visiting the new building with a positive mindset for change. His heart sinks when he discovers the reality of his new life. The filmmaker portrays her father as a decent, likeable old-school gentleman but the finale leaves us as confused as Faruk himself. Was Faruk mistaken or did he just have a selective memory of the past? A moving and captivating tribute to a life. @MeredithTaylor 

PANORAMA | Berlinale 2024

Afterwar (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir: Birgitte Stærmose | with Gëzim Kelmendi, Xhevahire Abdullahu, Shpresim Azemi, Besnik Hyseni, Luan Jaha Denmark / Kosovo / Sweden / Finland 2024 Albanian, Subtitles: English 85′ Colour World premiere | Documentary form

This feature debut from Birgitte Stærmose takes us back to Bosnia for a raw reverie of an Eastern European conflict that still reverberates in the memories of those affected back in 1999. Fifteen years in the making and created in a close artistic collaboration with the cast who stare directly at the camera their faces still childlike, even though adulthood has now hardened them. They share bitter experiences of selling ‘phone cards and cigarettes in a struggle that still goes on decades later.

Pristina, war-torn Kosovo, is a grim city emerging slowly out of the festering fog of its slushy snowbound setting. In the dingy dawn of another day, car headlights glow, a red-eyed testament to the poverty and squalor that still dogs the capital. The documentary alternates between social realism, staged performance and an existential meditation on the long-term repercussions of war. Snapshots of shattered lives show that war may be over but a different war has now begun: that of survival. @MeredithTaylor

PANORAMA | BERLINALE 2024 | 15 – 25 FEBRUARY 2024

 

Cu li Never Cries (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir: Pham Ngoc Lan | Cast: Minh Châu, Hà Phương, Xuân An, Hoàng Hà, Cao Sang Vietnam / Singapore / France / Philippines / Norway 2024 Vietnamese, Subtitles: English

This lyrical black & white drama from Vietnam explores the nation’s past and present from the intergenerational perspective of a young woman and her widowed aunt who has just returned home after living in Germany. In her luggage Auntie Cu li carries a Pygmy Slow Loris, an indigenous primate from the Vietnamese rainforest, inherited from her dead husband. One strangely touching scene sees Cu Li dancing in a bar with a waiter and the Pygmy loris, the tiny animal seems to embody the essence of this proud nation, fiercely defending itself while remaining graceful to the end. 

Cu Li’s young niece, who lives with her, is preparing for her wedding. The two argue bitterly about the usual intergenerational conflicts. Meanwhile her kids and the monkey look on, a picture of guileless vulnerability. Another contrast between the strength and vulnerability of an oriental nation that has born the brunt of many conflicts. 

“The present keeps bringing us back to the past” opines Cu li.  She quotes the 1960s communist president Ho Chi Min (1945-69) known as ‘uncle’ who said of the Black River (that runs from China to North Western Vietnam): “We must transform the water from foe into ally – our final purpose is to tame the river”. At this point Cu li is pictured scattering her husband’s ashes into the raging waters.

While the young couple anxiously ponders their uncertain future together (Cu Li’s niece is already pregnant with another child), Cu li invites the waiter to be her partner at the wedding, offering him money. The waiter is concerned about being seen as her toy boy, and the Pygmy Loris once again appears to echo all this anxiety – a tiny but potent little animal capable of killing with the toxin that spurts from its elbows when in danger, while outwardly exuding grace and innocence.

A brief running time plays to the film’s advantage along with a simple soundscape of exotic birdsong and imaginative outdoor locations captured in DoP magical monochrome camerawork. In his enchanting feature debut Pham Ngoc Lan expresses the hopes, fears and regrets of his homeland in an often surreal, understated and tender gem. @MeredithTaylor

PANORAMA COMPETITION | BERLINALE 2024

Gloria! (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir: Margherita Vicario | Cast: Galatéa Bellugi, Carlotta Gamba, Veronica Lucchesi, Maria Vittoria Dallasta, Sara Mafodda
Italy / Switzerland 2024 | Italian, Subtitles: English, German
106′ | Colour | World premiere | Debut film

The inmates of a Venetian girls’ musical orpanage in the Napoleonic era find their lives disrupted by the arrival of a splendid pianoforte – a newly-minted instrument which opens up a range of creative and lifestyle possibilities.

This well-made and visually appealing film begins in a seemingly sober and realistic vein but quickly escalates into the fantastical as it heads towards a giddy climax.

The musical rivalry between the convent’s star pupil and a ‘mute’, untutored outsider provides much of the story’s narrative thrust when the ingénue begins to compose music which sounds, at turns, suspiciously like jazz, minimalism and contemporary pop-rock –at one point even taking on a sheen of techno.

Her originality thrills the other girls, but throws the upcoming concert they are about to give for the Pope into jeopardy. Meanwhile, the convent’s elderly, untalented musical director tries to deal with his lust for a foppish, money-hungry young aristocrat.

It’s all very anachronistic and ultimately quite silly, but some will enjoy the girl-power uprising of the convent’s students against their patriarchal tutor, and there are moments of laugh-out-loud humour courtesy of a ravaged-looking Paolo Rossi, whose flights of shrieking fury are up there with those of Klaus Kinski. @IanLong

BERLINALE 2024 | GOLDEN BEAR 2024

 

Every You Every Me (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir: Michael Fetter Nathansky | Cast: Aenne Schwarz, Carlo Ljubek, Youness Aabbaz, Sara Fazilat, Naila Schuberth | Germany / Spain 2024 | German, Subtitles: English | 108′ | Colour | World premiere

An industrial coal mining zone of Cologne provides a heavy-duty backcloth to this thematically ambitious, atmospheric slice of social realism from German filmmaker Michael Fetter Nathansky who follows the gradual implosion of a relationship through the eyes of a woman called Nadine (Schwarz).

Relationship breakdown is a heart-sinking subject but it also makes for quizzical viewing in Alle die Du Bist that sees Nadine’s partner in different guises. The opening scenes, set in some sort of institution, are confusing at first as Nadine’s partner is revealed as a bull, a small child (played by Schrein); and an adolescent (Aabbaz)?. It subsequently emerges that Paul embodies all these identities by turns, – at least in Nadine’s gaze – and we gradually learn to accommodate this unique idea. The single mother has left her home in Brandenburg at the age of 24 and met the mercurial Paul while working in an open-cast mining installation. A proud father, he is also undoubtedly a man of many faces whose male charisma has clearly set her heart on fire.

But life moves on and Nadine falls on harder times largely due to structural changes in the industry. Nathansky’s idea of casting several actors to embody one character is a brave and fanciful one, and certainly pays tribute to one woman’s efforts to make do and mend and reinvigorate her long-term emotional relationship. At the same time Nathansky’s follow up to his director debut You Tell Me (2019) requires a large leap of faith on the part of the audience. Committed performances all round.  @MeredithTaylor

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2024 | PANORAMA AUDIENCE COMPETITION | 15 – 25 FEBRUARY 2024

 

Sex (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir/Wri: Dag Johan Haugerud | Comedy Drama, Norway 125′

“Once a thing is known, it can never be unknown. It can only be forgotten”. Anita Brookner, Look at Me

Compelling, absurd and offbeat this chilled-out Norwegian dark comedy reveals the complex dynamics of human desire in a simple parable that centres on the lives of two happily married chimney-sweeps, who just happen to be dyslexic.

Best known for his award-winning 2019 drama Barn – Dag Johan Haugerud’s latest – the first film in a trilogy to be followed by Dreams and Love – unfolds in a summery suburb of Oslo where the two heterosexual men are casually chatting over their canteen lunch. Their conversation is banal enough at first but what is soon revealed in this casual tete a tete between Feier (Jan Gunnar Roise) and Avdelingsleder (Thorbjorn Harr) will have far-reaching implications on their family relationships.

Feier admits to having had casual sex with a male stranger but Avdelingsleder’s response is revealing in its insight into modern attitudes in Norway: “Admitting you’ve had sex with a man is easier than admitting you’re Christian”.

Avdelingsleder – who reads Hannah Arendt in bed – then describes a dream where he is a woman who has sex with David Bowie. This leaves him confused and questioning how much his personality is shaped by how he appears to others. His wife (Brigitte Larsen) later points out: “homosexuality is not just an identity it’s an activity“.

Predictably, Feir’s wife (Siri Forberg) is not impressed when her partner shares his one-off sexual encounter, and his revelation will reverberate the fallout intruding into their daily lives. She wants a full and frank discussion about what exactly happened and this opens up a thorny debate between the two about physical and emotional experiences and how we all define marriage, relationships and coupledom in general. These conversations are surprisingly affecting and go to show just how fuzzy the borders are in desire and sexual attraction in a film that probes and challenges pre-conceived views on sexuality and gender roles, both for the characters and us, the audience.

Writer/Director Dag Johan Haugerud offers up an upbeat and enjoyable look at how as humans we pride ourselves on our unique ability to love and communicate verbally, although our enhanced brains also make our structured lives more complex: at the end of the day we are basically all animals, albeit human ones, but once we start to analyse our feelings that’s where our lives become complicated forcing open that universal ‘can of worms’ about infidelity and the purported differences between the male and female brains in a debate that ripples out into religious and moral norms in modern Norway.

Although the pace slackens as the film unfolds Sex is an upbeat and often moving affair that comes to a satisfying conclusion despite the couples’ differences and recriminations. At the end of day this is a candid film full of hope that offers a relaxed and positive view of coupledom: “Think of love as a choice. I’ve chosen you and you’ve chosen me”. @MeredithTaylor

BERLINALE | ENCOUNTERS – BEST FIRST FEATURE AWARD 2024

Brief History of a Family (2024) Berlinale 2024

Dir/Wri: Jianjie Lin | Cast: Feng Zu, Ke-Yu Guo, Xilun Sun, Muran Lin | China, Thriller 99’

Beijing in post-one child policy China is the setting for this stylish but unnerving Michael Haneke-style psychological drama. Brief History of a Family, the feature debut of Jianjie Lin, shows the striking modern face of the city, far away from Wuxia and social realist Chinese fare we’ve become used, although the traditional Chinese themes of loyalty, discipline, betrayal, rivalry and even misogyny are present and subtly interwoven into this intriguing thriller.

Unfolding in series of glowingly-captured serene scenes, accompanied by an occasional score of gentle classical piano music that alternates with disconcerting electronic vibes, the story follows a middle class couple, Mrs Tu and her husband, a biologist, who have only recently been married and share a tragic secret that promts Mrs Tu to strike up a relationship with their son Tu Wei’s enigmatic new friend when he comes for tea after an alarming incident at school which is brushed under the carpet. 

Yan Shuo is thoughtful and reserved, and still traumatised into a state of near catatonia by the sudden death of his mother. The troubled teen talks of being abused by his father, who we never meet, but whose sudden death casts a sinister veil over his past, intensifying the boyish rivalry between the two teenagers that develops a violent edge when Tu Wei’s parents start to talk openly of adopting the morose orphan who is more artistic and academic than their sporty son, who nevertheless excels in fencing, competing for a place in the local team. 

The director shows how important study and discipline is in his homeland, and how the focus of modern professional parents is their offsprings’ education abroad. One disturbing scene sees Dr Tu queuing to get his son a place at college where a mantra is piped continuously over the tanoy: ‘Conquer English and realise your children’s dream to study abroad.’ Only 30 percent will be admitted to college in China, putting pressure on the kids to knuckle down to their studies. And they are seen doing so in an almost clinical classroom.

As the couple take Yan Shuo under their wing they are increasingly drawn towards his commitment and academic prowess, to the detriment of the boys’ personal relationship. Family secrets and buried feelings soon give rise to increased tensions that test the bonds and expectations that bind the four of them together until the shattering resolution finally dawns in a quietly devastating finale.

One of the many triumphs here is Jianjie Lin’s accomplished direction and the restrained yet potent performances from the ensemble cast. With its striking Danish sound and classical score of Bach, Mozart and Schubert, this is a tense and tightly-scripted arthouse thriller that never outstays its welcome at 99 minutes. An impressive first film from a director heading for international success. @MeredithTaylor

WORLD PREMIERE | Grand Jury Prize, World Cinema, Dramatic SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2024 | BERLINALE GWFF Nominee Best First Feature Award, and Panorama Audience Award.

Past Lives (2023)

Dir: Celine Song | S Korean Drama 105′

An ambitious – you could say precocious – pre-teen playwright moves from Seoul to Canada to further her writing ambitions in this moving first feature from Celine Song.

Nora (Seung-ah) leaves behind a teenage sweetheart Hae Sung. Twelve years later we meet her again as Nora (Lee) and fate sees her rekindling the earlier crush with Hae Sung (Teo Too) who still lives in Seoul. But their thing fizzles out and she marries New Yorker Arthur (John Magaro). Another twelve years goes by and Hae Sung still carries a candle for Nora, and hopes it will come alight again when he visits New York.

There’s something quite detached about Nora as a character that fuels this subtle drama about a young woman who often blows hot and cold in her romantic encounters. Clearly Nora (Lee) has a palpable chemistry with Hae Sung (You) but Arthur (Magaro) also features heavily as her neglected other half. Past Lives is a thoughtful and appealing debut for a South Korean director who is clearly going places. @MeredithTaylor

APPLE TV, AMAZON PRIME VIDEO | BERLINALE premiere 2023

20,000 Species of Bees (2023)

Dir: Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren | Spain, Drama 128′

Can a child as young as eight have strong sexual feelings, and trans ones into the bargain? That’s what Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren explores in her impressive first feature.

Assertive and entirely sure of herself Aitor, who calls herself Lucia in defiance of the male name assigned to her at birtH, is certainly a force of nature, brilliantly played by Sofía Otero in her debut. But her mother Ane (Patricia Lopez Arnaiz), a sculptor who is going through a crisis of her own, prefers to call her Coco because she finds it difficult to see her son as a girl.

20,000 Species of Bees is a delicate slow-burn coming of age drama that traces this morally complex mother child relationship as it gradually develops one summer in the Basque Country. Ane’s own mother Lita (Itziar Lazkano) plays the disapproving traditional role of reason. So it falls upon the girl’s aunt Lourdes (Ane Gabarian), whose skill as a beekeeper gives this limpid tale of female empowerment its title, to allow her niece to be herself without judgement or admonishment. MT

IN UK CINEMAS FROM 27 OCTOBER 2023

 

 

Afire (2023)

Dir.: Christian Petzold; Cast: Thomas Schubert, Paula Beer, Langston Uibel, Enno Trebs, Paula Beer. Matthias Brandt; Germany 2023, 103 min.

German writer/director Christian Petzold (*1960) won the Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival 2023 in for Afire, his tenth feature film. This award is well earned: Petzold can be called the chronicler of recent German history, illuminating past and not so present transgressions. Hot on the heels of Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog he is the only German director regularly featuring at international festivals. His minimalist style always cuts to the chase with a lean but substantial body of film.

Petzold’s first feature Innere Sicherheite/The State I’m In (2000) set the standard for what would follow: Petzold tells the story of a teenager whose desperate need for freedom jeopardises the security of her terrorist parents who have so far successfully avoided capture. In the 2001 he began what was to be an enduring collaboration with Nina Hoss and continued with FIPRESCI prize winner Wolfsburg (2003) and this continued with Yella (2007) and Jerichow (2008). In Barbara (2012) Petzold investigates Germany’s immediate 1945 past, and Transit (2018), an adaption of the Anna Seeghers’ novel of the same name, featuring the life of German immigrants during the first years of the Nazi regime, saw him replacing Hoss with Paul Baer who won the Best Actor prize in Berlin for Undine (2020).

Afire is the second part of a trilogy about the artist in society in Germany. Set in an imagined time span after the fall of the wall in the advent of the computer age, this is a feature nonetheless dominated by human emotions with a dose of dark humour .

On the way to a summer getaway on the Baltic Coast friends Leon (Schubert) and Felix (Uibel) are waylaid when their car breaks down. Then Felix’s mother, the owner, has also promised Nadja (Beer), a post graduate student, one of the rooms. Nadja has a boyfriend, coastguard Devid (Trebs), and Felix and Leon have to listen to the couple’s lovemaking. This is quickly reversed, with Nadja and Leon having to listen to Devid and Felix getting it on.

Leon, meanwhile has just finished writing a second-rate novel and is behaving like a stroppy teenager, secretly in love with Nadja. Leon’s editor Helmut (Brandt) turns up and tempers flare, with catastrophic results.

All this fits into Petzold’s general overview of German men who still seem better at living than dying. Helmut discusses the director’s pet theme with Heinrich Heine’s poem “The Asra”.

DoP Hans Fromm puts a documentary spin on his images, catching the protagonists like fish in a deadly net. Schubert simmers quietly but effectively as the spoilt child would be author, and Beer does her best with a tricky role. But true to Heine himself, Petzold stays the course, and no one’s prepared for what’s in store.

Afire might not be Petzold’s greatest achievement, but he once again proves to be head and shoulders above his German peers. This is another sad tract on Germany’s guilt complex – played out by a new generation of males. AS

IN CINEMAS and ON CURZON HOME CINEMA from 25 AUGUST 2023

Reality (2023)

Dir: Tina Satter | Cast  Sydney Sweeney, Josh Hamilton, Marchant Davies | US Drama 83′

A whistleblowing psychological drama that traps us for most of its running time within the confines of a small room and other drab locations to tell the true story of Reality Winner, an American NSA contractor who in 2017 divulged confidential top secret intelligence that revealed her country’s knowledge of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections.

Satter’s impressive feature debut is based on her own stage play ‘Is This a Room’ and revolves around an interrogation between two male FBI agents and Reality, an ambitious and highly intelligent linguist multi-linguist, sensitively played Sydney Sweeney. The dialogue is actually taken from the FBI’s transcripts of what was actually said, and demonstrates just how persuasive the men become in gradually breaking down a suspect until they achieve their aims.

It all starts in 2017 when Reality (Sweeney) is doorstepped at her home by FBI agents Garrick (Josh Hamilton) and Taylor (Marchant Davis), who present a search warrant and then start a menacing interrogation. Reality readily engages with their line of questioning as her house is searched and her telephone confiscated until it gradually emerges that she is a suspect in the disclosure of highly sensitive information. At times stranger than fiction, Reality is an absorbing film that blends political thriller with fantasy drama with striking lighting effects and sound design. Sydney Sweeney is certainly a force to be reckoned with in the title role. MT

NOW IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE from 2 June 2023 | BERLINALE PANORAMA 2023

 

Landshaft (2023)

Dir.: Daniel Koetter; Documentary with Sama Karapoghosyan, Nune Hovhannisyan, Evya Hovhannisyan, Armen Papyan; Germany/Armenia 2022, 97 min.

The rumbling unrest between Armenia and Azerbaijan simmers below the surface on these neighbouring countries, often erupting into full blown conflict. Such was the case in 2020 when war once again broke out between the two nations. Countless lives have been lost and over the past few decades on both sides of the border.

German essayist and documentarian Daniel Koetter (Hashti Tehran) was invited to visit the eastern region of Armenia, bordering on Azerbaijan. Koetter had in mind to shot a documentary about both sides of the conflict, but somehow never got permission to film on the Azerbaijani side. Yet Landshaft is anything but biased. It starts with praise for the Azerbaijani enemy, whose hospitality is praised by one of Koetter‘s Armenian sources, who aided and abetted the filming process.

Doubling up as cameraman, Koetter finds himself in the region around Lake Sevan and the Sotk goldmine. The eastern Armenian border is overlooked by high peaks and is constantly caught in the crossfire, the invisible enemy ready to pounce at any moment. The goldmine runs along the border, each country controlling their respective side of the booty. But the Azerbaijanis have the protection of a Russian company – and Russian drones monitor the Armenian population.

Koetter started shooting just after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The landlocked region of Nagorno-Karabakh is the centre of this proxy war between Russia and its allies and old enemies like Armenia on the other side; a country devastated by the Turkish genocide in WW1. Here in Sotk, the Russian army guarantees a certain buffer between the two countries. There was no military activity during Koetter’s shoot, but in September 2022 places were he had lived and worked were bombed. The drones, produced by Russia, keep the Azerbaijanis on the winning side. “Whoever can, leaves the place” says a dejected Armenian – the same person who had only good things to say about the enemy of today. Like in former Yugoslavia, nobody can explain when and why the neighbours felt out with each other.

Koetter started to accept the invisibility of Azerbaijani soldiers: leaving his house he was surrounded on three sides by mountain peaks where the enemy was stationed. Staying true to this perspective, he shows empathy with the ones without power, but refrains from taking sides. As a symbol, the connecting road to Nagorno-Karabakh, once the main thoroughfare, has become a dead end. The simmering conflict continues, always ready to explode. The mine is the central point of life for both countries.

The dialogue with Armenians is only part of the developing picture: an eerie calm belies a landscape charged with latent violence. Landshaft may be opaque, but it shows the many forms of displacement. The psychological impact and the loss of identity is much more grave in its long term effect than the military skirmishes. Both sides are losers in a war of attrition. AS

VISIONS DU REEL 2023

 

Suzume (2023)

Dir.: Makoto Shinkai, Anime with the voices of Nanoka Hara, Eri Fukastu, Hokuto Matsumura, Ann Yamane; Japan 2022, 122 min.

The turbulent history of Japan comes alive in this delicately drawn and magical adventure that will resonate with a generation of young people still traumatised by the Tohoko earthquake and Tsunami and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant disaster.

Suzume (voiced by Nanoka Hara) is a clever 17-year-old orphan who lives with her aunt in Kyushu, on Japan’s southern Island, after losing her mother. On the way to school one day she meets Souta (Hokuto Matsumura) a mysterious young man with a special ability for ‘closing out’, by way of a door, an ancient demon called the Worm who can bring havoc on Earth. Together, they set out in search of the door, tramping through ruins in the countryside, and Suzume is the first to find it, accidentally unleashing the Worm that then morphs into a kitten called Daijin, and leads them on to surreal adventure across Japan during which Souta miraculously transforms into a shape-shifting stool – of the wooden variety (!) – causing hilarious scenes – with Suzume and Souta having to wait a long time, before Daijin decides to turn Souta back into his human form.

The animation is spectacular, a mixture of 2 and 3D hand drawn animation and the use of CGI, which in the case of the red super worm is rather overdone: the worm looks tame in comparison with the rest of the Anime. Loss and decay are the main subjects of Anime director Makoto Shinkai (Your Name). The past is a dangerous place to return to, particularly for Suzume, who is able to close doors to keep the beastly worm underground, while also being afraid of what she will find behind the door leading to the house she grew up in during the first few of her life. Two scenes in particular stand out, one takes place in an ancient bath house, desolated and abandoned, and another in an old-fashioned fairground which comes eerily to life.

Suzume is a potent mixture of melancholy and hilarious fun, as the girl gradually grows up during her adventures. Suzume has an impressive confrontational scene with her aunt, accusing the woman of only adopting her to avoid an adult relationship. At a later stage, Suzume takes back her accusations, but this is as a result of her falling for Souta, as her Tom-Boy identity gradually recedes. Overall, this is a mature Anime, with Shinkai using lots of kawaii cuteness, but also referentially quoting Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service with the talking cat in the shape of Daijin. A magic round-about-movie. AS

SUZUME IN UK and IRISH CINEMAS on 14 April 2023

Dream’s Gate (2023) Berlinale 2023

Dir.: Negin Ahmadi; Documentary with Negin Ahmadi, Nasrin Abdulahh; Iran/France/Norway 2023, 65 min.

The “Women’s Protection Union (YPJ)” is an all-female section of the “Armed Forces of Rojava” that forms part of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Since 2011 the unit has been involved in Kurdish/Syrian resistance, fighting the “Islamic State of Iran”, “ISIS” and the forces of the Turkish army, who have occupied parts of the autonomous Kurdish region.

In her first feature documentary Iranian filmmaker Negin Ahmadi has spent the last six years in the company of these women to see what makes them tick and, in the process, she found her own voice. On returning from the conflicted region to Tehran she admits to “missing the war”. Being part of the group of courageous female fighters gave her a sense of purpose, and a real identity in the bigger picture, having felt lost in her own large male-dominated family.

Dream’s Gate shows how Syria is still very much a man’s world. Negin realises she reacted against this growing up in family where men made all the decisions. The  women fighters showed Negin another reality: women were capable of being naughty and rebellious one minute, then suddenly transformed into “martyrs” prepared to give up their lives for a worthy cause.

Sometimes the motives are personal: one of the female fighters actually killed her father for supporting “Isis”. But even though Negin identifies more and more with the female warriors, she never loses her perspective. Seeing the constant stream of violence and death on her mobile during the fighting in Deir-Ez-Zor, she states: “The ones I saw today won’t live long”. Negin also films interviews. One of the fighters admits to finding an ISIS spy amid their ranks. Finally Negin gets access to Nasrin Abdulahh, a founder member of the (YPJ), who explains why the organisation is under pressure. Once women marry they have to leave the service, “for biological and emotional reasons”. But Negin is more than sceptical. For Nasrin everything is political, but for Negin women’s right are paramount. After her return to Tehran we see her hanging the washing out on the roof terrace, wondering “ What is happening to me? Nothing seems to be the same as it was before, even shopping is suddenly an alien pastime”.

Dream’s Gate feels all the more powerful for its compact running time of just over an hour. There is no need to aim for ‘objectivity’ or expand on the narrative. The pictures tell a thousand words. AS

PREMIERED DURING BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2023

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Delegation (2023) Berlinale 2023

Dir.: Asaf Saban; Cast: Leib Lev Levin, Neomi Harari, Yoav Bavly, Alma Dishy, Ezra Sagan, Karolina Bruchnicka; Israel/Germany/Poland 2023, 102 min.

Israeli writer/director Asaf Saban takes on a complex, and perhaps even untenable, undertaking that follows a group of Israeli high school students whose final studies retrace the Holocaust in Poland.

Adolescence is never easier at the best of times, and their confrontation with the past makes it less so. Nitzan (Harari) is the central character: she is in love with Ido (Levin) but realises he is narcissistic and does not like to commit himself. On the other Frisch (Bavly) is naïve and rather secretive. His grandfather Yosef (Dagan), a holocaust survivor, accompanies the students on the trip, giving context with his own experiences.

Nitzan is not sure how to deal with so much past trauma, and she steals a shoe from one of the Camp museums in an attempt to bring past and present together. In the barracks of Auschwitz, she bonds with Ido – partly because Frisch has been left behind at a gas station, and is hitchhiking his way to Auschwitz. The truck driver, who gives him a lift, also leads him to the burnt out ruins of an old synagogue where the mayor asks Frisch to say a few words of Hebrew. After Frisch has re-joined the delegation he gets together with Nitzan and Ido and they head off to a party where Frisch ends up sleeping with the birthday girl Anna (Bruchnicka), whilst a relieved Ido is sent packing by Nitzan into the arms of Einat (Dishy) – who has waited patiently on the sidelines.

Delegation works well in portraying the shifting relationship between the teenagers, but is less convincing in Frisch’s encounter with the Polish citizens. Poland’s continued denial of their corroboration with the Nazis during Holocaust is still leading to the violence against the few thousand Jews still left in Poland. During an outing to the city the group leaders warn the Israelis not to display any religious or secular evidence of their nationality, and to stay in groups of six, never venturing off alone. Frisch’s friendly encounter in the synagogue is therefore a clear contradiction of the earlier scene.

Yosef’s role in the feature feels rather sketchy, more substance would have been helpful; but his meetings with Frisch shows the chasm between the survivor’s generation and that of their grandchildren, who use the holocaust to motivate themselves to join the combat units of the IDF.

Cinematographer Bogumie Goodfrejow is very sensitive with his images of the camps – just showing enough to re-invoke the horror. In contrast, the scenes with the teenagers are full throttle – perhaps even more when set against the traumatic background. But Saban seems to have  bitten off more than he can chew – somehow the group’s discussions about “what have we seen today” are a tad over-didactic. AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | GENERATION 2023

The Teachers’ Lounge (2023)

Dir: Ìlker Çatak | Cast: Leonie Benesch, Leonard Stettnisch | Germany, Drama 98′

Weird things are happening in schools all over Europe and in this shrewd and serrated psychological thriller from German director Ìlker Çatak, the focus is a series of thefts that take place in a German secondary school.

There’s a brittle quality to the central character Carla Nowak – a highly sensitive Leonie Benesch (The Crown) – who soon gains our sympathies as a committed and professional Maths teacher who hails originally from Polish stock and speaks fluent English to boot. Naturally she shares her fellow teachers’ disquiet about a series of thefts and the heavy-handed way they are being dealt with by the powers that be in this bright and well designed educational establishment in Westphalia. And the tension that surrounds Carla’s attempt to address the matter, after a boy with Turkish parents has his rucksack searched, drives the mystery forward with a needling and urgent score.

The school makes an apology for the embarrassment caused to the boy, and young Carla does her best to deal diplomatically with his parents. But then Carla is faced with fresh controversy when money is stolen from her own purse by what looks like another member of staff with a boy at the school. It appears that Carla has recorded the event on her laptop – in footage that shows the woman’s distinctive flower- patterned blouse. Carla confronts her colleague, an unrepentant Mrs Kuhn (Eva Lobau), who refuses to fess up despite the laptop evidence and this leads to the woman being suspended.

But far from gaining her fellow colleagues support they all start to question Carla’s actions – Frau Kuhn’s little boy self-righteously ups the ante claiming the Maths teacher should apologise to his mother for falsely accusing her of a unproven crime. This sends Carla scuppering into the bathroom to assuage her nerves with the help of a plastic bin liner. She spends the rest of the film in a state of high anxiety, back-footed by the boy’s stance and generally incredulous at the collective unsupportive reactions of everyone involved.

Cast your mind back to The Hunt where Mads Mikkelsen found himself as a teacher in similar territory, accused of inappropriate behaviour with a child pupil, and this is how this situation gradually spins out of control for Carla in The Teachers’ Lounge with its chewy ethical concerns provided for in a meaty script from Catak and his co-writer Johannes Dunker. They leave us somewhat in the lurch in the final stretch which loses power despite a febrile performance from Benesch who remains memorable as a decent woman scorned MT

NOW ON RELEASE IN FRANCE and BELGIUM | BERLINALE 2023 WINNER: BERLIN EUROPA CINEMAS LABEL  

Under the Sky of Damascus (2023) Berlinale 2023

Dir.: Heba Khaled, Talal Derki, Ali Wajeeh; Documentary with Eliana Saad, Inana Rashed, Souhir Saleh, Sabah Al Salem; Denmark/USA/Germany 2023, 88 min.

Men are outnumbered by women in the Syrian capital of Damascus but, increasingly, they still manage to dominate the female population. A collective of female actors do their best to stage the growing repression in this well-intentioned documentary from Heba Khaled, Talal Derki and Ali Wajee.

Unfortunately the artistic undertaking hits the road blocks when it soon emerges that a member of the crew tried to exploit the women sexually. “Women are more enslaved than ever in these times” declares middle-aged actor Sabah Al Salem, who has recently been released from prison after her active protests against male dominance. “The biggest exploitations we face are of a sexual nature”.

In a clip from one of Salem’s feature films, we see the male actor striking her with full force on the cheek, with the director not even batting an eyelid. The interviews are harrowing, one young woman complaining how her father regularly beat them all, often so violently that they had to go to hospital. Another woman tells the story of how her husband went on to marry two more wives and sent her, his first wife, and their daughters to live with his family where they are now treated like servants.

At a centre for Deaf and Mute women, a member of staff reveals how many have been sexually abused. One women was raped by three men, and the court found them guilty – but the first rapist had to marry the victim, to satisfy the honour of the family.

The stage undertaking makes good progress until one of the actors, Eliana Saad, abruptly stopped coming to the rehearsals claiming her boyfriend was against her participation. It later turns out this was not true. Adel, the line producer, had been harassing Eliana, asking for sex and threatening her with punishment if she refused to comply with his wishes. The sexual harassment episode forms the production’s centrepiece, but rehearsals were later suspended, and so was the film. The directors Heba Khaled and Talal Derki then returned to their homes in Berlin; but later changed their minds when film critic Ali Wajeeh took over the production and direction in Damascus, finishing film and play with the help of DoP Raed Sandeed.

This is a brave piece of guerrilla filmmaking and the crew is entitled to some leeway. But there are too many questions left unanswered, and the exact circumstances of Adel’s attack on Eliana and the other actresses, Inana Rashed and Souhir Saleh remain unsubstantiated. Under the Sky of Damascus is a potent piece of agit-prop, a story that needs to find an audience not only in Syria, but throughout the Arab world where thousands of women are abused and even killed by husbands, fathers, brothers and cousins – with the so-called honour killings still going unpunished. The feature, a debut for many of the crew, is dedicated to these victims. AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | 2023 | NOMINATED FOR BEST DOCUMENTARY AWARD

 

Deep Sea (2023) Berlinale 2023

Dir: TIAN Xiaopeng | China I 2023 I 112 min I Animation I

An absolutely ravishing Chinese anime that needs to be seen on the big screen is this enchanting story of Shenxiu, a little girl abandoned by her mother, and still suffering from bad dreams about a monster called Nightmare. On a cruise with the rest of her family she actually sees him on the deck humming her mother’s favourite tune and beckoning her on a mysterious and healing undersea odyssey where Shenxiu will encounter some weird and wonderful characters amongst them a mystical shape-shifting creature that resembles a squid called a Hyjinkx.

Shenxiu joins forces with a strange character called Nanhe as they plummet the depths of the ocean in search of her long lost mother, a quest that will bring both wonder and heartache and a shocking twist in the final resolve. Like all good animations, Deep Sea works on two levels: to offer a spectacular visual treat for younger viewers and a deeper more meaningful experience for mature audiences. Some of the content may be disturbing for more suggestible children under 14.

Playing in the Generation strand at this year’s Berlinale the film explores children’s intense and often dreamlike emotional life showing how they find solace by escaping into their imagination in order to process trauma. MT

BERLINALE 2023 | GENERATION STRAND

 

#Manhole (2023) Berlinale 2023

Dir: Kumakiri Kazuyoshi | Cast: Nakajima Yuto, Nao, Nagayama Kento, Okada Michitaka | Japan: 99′

Another nail-biting psychological drama along the lines of 127 Hours this time sees a man trapped down a manhole, Japanese style, and determined to prevail despite the odds.

The crisis sends the central character down-spiralling into a dark night of soul-searching with director Kumakiri Kazuyoshi adopting a gritty and hard-edged slant to his narrative in place of the more sleek treatment that Danny Boyle’s gave his 2010 outing with James Franco as the victim.

Professional office worker Shunsuke (Nakajima Yuto) is on the verge of getting married and has been celebrating his forthcoming nuptials at a surprise celebration thrown by his colleagues. In an alcoholic haze he trips directly into an open manhole and later comes to, relatively unscathed but unable to avail himself of a rather dodgy ladder placed by the workmen, due to sustaining a leg wound.

As luck would have it Shunsuke still has a fully-charged mobile at his disposal and uses this to launch an SOS attempt via his ex Mai (Nao) and then has a brainwave of presenting himself as female, potentially hoping for better traction as a ‘damsel in distress’. And this is where it gets technical because his GPS locator is not picking up on his actual whereabouts making it impossible for the emergency services, or friends, to locate him. Kazuyoshi then evokes a seething sense of desperation mixed with the absurdity of the situation as Shunksuke is  forced to spend hours tapping furiously on his ‘phone in the dank and grimy confines of his underground prison as his soul is laid bare by overthinking his life and his past ‘crimes and misdemeanours’ in a quirky but effective situational thriller. MT

BERLINALE 2023

 

 

 

Matria (2023) Berlinale 2023

Dir: Alvaro Gago | Spain, drama. 99′

The Spanish coastal region of Galicia is viewed as a rain-swept, hostile place and very much a character in this feature debut from Alvaro Gago whose heroine, a single mother in her forties, is beset by difficulties not of her own making but determined to prevail against the odds in the fishing town of Vilanova de Arousa, near Pontevedra.

Gago bases his story on his 2018 award-winning short film that sees the plucky, mercurial yet vulnerable Ramona (Vazquez) holding down two jobs, one as a cleaner, the other aboard a mussel dredger, while her partner Andres (Santi Prego) is a typical loser who spends the days drinking and complaining. Her daughter Estrella (Luaces), from a previous relationship, has already left her home and her studies to pursue a relationship which seems equally destructive.

A disagreement over pay in her cleaning job sends Ramona packing but she soon settles down into a ‘modus vivendi’ as carer for a grumpy old widow Xose (E.R. Cunha “Tatán”) who is stuck in his ways but offers her a semblance of normality. Ramona’s vulnerability and her self-destructive tendency to blow a fuse and then get back on track is the crucial plot point in this engaging Galician-language character study with its inevitable nods to contemporary consumer bleats and the ills of capitalism. MT

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | 2023

 

 

 

Femme (2023)

Dir/scr: Sam H. Freeman, Ng Choon Ping. UK. 2023. 99mins

This erotic Neo-noirish revenge thriller builds up quite a head of steam after getting down to business with a classic confrontation in an East London convenience shop between chameleon-like club performer Jules (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and ex-con Preston (George MacKay) whose plethora of tattoos would certainly give David Beckham a run for his money. The violent homophobic assault that ensues will see Preston getting his comeuppance in a gay sauna where drag queen Jules assumes another identity.

Extended from the short film of the same title Femme is the intense and fervent feature debut of directing duo Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping. Because of its LGBTQ subject matter the film will no doubt find its way onto the festival circuit and also into arthouse cinemas. Femme is all about the men’s ability to dissemble and assume a variety of identities to suit the milieu of the modern metropolis where sexual identity is not longer simply a question of ‘male’ and ‘female’ but has become a multifarious melting pot of myriad styles capturing the mercurial zeitgeist of gaydom. Performance wise George McKay continues to be a talent to amuse. MT

NOW IN UK CINEMAS from 1st DECEMBER 2023 | BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2023

 

Massimo Troisi: Someone down there loves me (2023) Berlinale

Dir.: Mario Martone; Documentary with Anna Pavignano, Paolo Sorrentino, Michael Radford, Roberto Perpignani; Italy 2023, 128 min.

A very personal portrait of successful director, writer and actor Massimo Troisi by his fellow Neapolitan director Mario Martone (Nostalgia) and scripter Anna Pavignano, who co-wrote all of Troisi’s features, even after their relationship came to an end.

Massimo Troisi was born in February 1953 in San Giorgio a Cremano near Naples. Early in childhood his heart was weakened by rheumatic fever which contributed to his early death in 1994 at only 41. Troisi started his film career as an actor in the early 1960s, and by the 1970s he had formed the theatre group La Smorfia at the Centro Teatro Spazio with Enzo De Caro and Lello Arena. The three of them were popular on radio and TV, and they never lost contact.

In 1981 Troisi directed and played the lead in his first feature Ricomincio Da Tre, a low budget indie shot in six weeks that was a big hit at the box office, running for over 600 days and grossing more than The Empire Strikes Back. The film and its helmer swept the board at the Donatello awards, Italy’s equivalent to the Oscars.

A year later he starred in a TV Special “Morto Troisi, Viva Troisi” together with Roberto Benigni, and in 1983 Troisi and Lello Arena were responsible for No Thanks, Coffee makes me Nervous. 1987 saw him direct The Ways of the Lord are finishedthe highest grossing Italian feature of the year. He went on to win the Coppa Volpe at the Venice Film Festival for his role in Splendour, sharing it with Marcello Mastroianni. Troisi’s final feature as a director was I thought it was Love…but it was a Gig from 1991.  

Poor health was to dog Troisi throughout his life. He underwent a triple by-pass operation, but his heart “was as big as a football” and he was desperately in need of a transplant. The surgery was due to be performed at Harefield Hospital near London, but he was determined to finish Il Postinothe story of a timid waiter and the Chilean Nobel Prize Winner Pablo Neruda, directed by Michael Radford. Radford and editor Roberto Perpignani give deeply affecting details about Troisi’s death at his sister’s house in Ostia where he died very shortly after the arduous shoot had concluded. Legend has it that he said I don’t want a new heart because my acting is closely connected with the defective organ”.

Troisi was famous for his quotes, and his self depreciation: “I never like myself, I am so self-critical that I don’t commit suicide so as not to leave a note that would seem ridiculous to me.”

DoP Pado Carnero contributes to the intimate setting with Martone and Pavignano going over the details of a short but significant career, assisted by Troisi’s comprehensive diaries which bear testaments to a man of drole humour: “Suffering in love is a disposable void: no one gains from it, except the songwriters who make tunes for us” AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2023

Last Night of Amore (2023) Berlinale | Special Gala 2023

Dir: Andrea Di Stefano | Cast: Pierfrancesco Favino, Francesco Di Leva, Katia Mironova, Linda Caridi | Italy, Crime Thriller 124′

Italian ‘man of the moment’ Pierfrancesco Favino stars alongside his Nostalgia sidekick Francesco Di Leva in this ‘al dente’ heist thriller with a Chinese twist from talented writer/director Andrea di Stefano (The Informant).

A magnificent nighttime opening sequence transports us over the rooftops of Milan from the Duomo and beyond finally zooming down on a soirée in full swing through the windows of an apartment. A little boy looks down on a man in the street below. Yes, it’s Favino as super clean detective Franco Amore on his way home from a jog to meet another colleague Cosimo (Gerardi) at a surprise party in celebration retirement the following day. The evening has been organised by his suave and savvy stiletto-heeled wife, Viviana (Caridi) who has hair as glossy as a freshly cracked chestnut and a décolletage to match in a crime thriller that is gripping and emotionally intelligent.

Di Stefano goes to great lengths to establish Franco’s probity as a policeman but also shows how important Viviana is in bolstering his career, underlining the strength of their relationship and their complicity. Crucially, Viviana feels responsible for limiting Franco’s career progression due to her links with the mob via her distant relative Cosimo (Gerardi).

After making a brief appearance at the gathering to enforce his soulful and squeaky clean image, Last Night then gets down to business when Franco is called away  by his boss Sarno to discover his best friend and longtime colleague Dino (Di Leva) has been shot dead on the highway while moonlighting ‘off duty’ on a diamond heist. The action then flashes back ten days to show how Franco had saved the life of a Chinese Mafia boss Mr Zhang whose son-in-law is working behind the scenes to undermine him in a diamond deal.

Things have certainly moved on from the days of Italian Mafia and male dominance in Italian detective thrillers, and thoughts of Franco’s imminent retirement are soon on the back burner when Zhang’s son-in-law presents the honest cop with a final gig before retiring, and a financial boost to his pension he could have only dreamed on, if he agrees to drive an accomplice Fei Fei and the precious booty of African diamonds to a given destination in the capital. 

Franco gets Dino (Di Leva) on board and they set off with Fei Fei and her boyfriend along Milan’s Carugate freeway but the vehicle gets a puncture. Fei Fei refuses to let Franco stop, but an officious policewoman pulls them over and in the shootout that follows Dino, the Chinese couple and the policewoman take the bullets. Suffering an existential crisis, Franco then stages a crime scene to cover his tracks, throwing the jewels in the river. He then calls Viviana to the crime scene for backup, refusing to fess up on his moonlighting activities.  At this point, it certainly looks like his retirement plans – and his marriage – are over. But all is not lost. Viviana is not a just pretty face, she’s a woman with an eye to the end game, and considerable perseverance, who is willing to get her hands dirty – quite literally – and will come up trumps in this inventive Robin Hood style thriller’s tense finale. Shot with brilliant bravura by DoP Guido Michelotti Last Night of Amore is a classic thriller of lost souls that feels entirely contemporary in its scripting, breathtaking yet relevant and emotionally engaging. MT

BERLINALE SPECIAL GALA | BERLINALE 2023

When will it be like it never was before (2023) Berlinale | Generation 2023

Dir.: Sonja Heiss; Cast: Camille Loup Moltzen, Arsseni Bultmann, Merlin Rose, Kolja Koddenbrock, Leevi Tjelle Hohlein, Pola Geiger, Laura Tonke, Devid Striesow; Germany 2023, 116min.

In her expansive drama focusing on the development of post-war German child psychiatry from 1974 onwards, Sonja Heiss bites off far more than she can chew and runs out of time in the final act.

Based on the 2013 autobiographical novel of Joachim Meyerhoff, the film’s opening scene, and far the most intriguing part, sees seven-year old Josse (Moltzen) being teased mercilessly by teenage brothers Philipp (Koddenbrock) and Patrick (Hohlein).

Josse’s father Richard (Striesow) is the director of a huge psychiatric clinic in the north of Germany and lives with his wife Iris (Tonke) and family on the grounds of the institution. The teenage Josse (Bultmann) Josse is close to both his parents, and spends time with his father’s patients, often feeling more at ease in the clinic than at home his brothers due to their aggressive behaviour. A childhood friend Marlene (Geiger) comes back into his life when she is “parked’ by her parents with Richard and Iris, and later commits suicide. 

Josse tries in vain to work through the reasons for her suicide with his father but Richard simply states that she wanted to die, and he was unable to help. This episode alienates Josse even more from his father, who by now is cheating on his wife with his secretary, Iris retreating into the world of her youthful adventures in Italy. Later, Josse’s brother and father will experience tragedy but this episode is curiously shown as part of his ‘lessons in life’.

There seem to be no borders between Richard’s role as a director of the institution and his private life: he and Josse “talk shop” about the patients’ case histories, with Josse humouring the sick he encounters on the grounds, playing the part of his father as a benevolent bystander.  

DoP Manuel Dacosse brings an epic quality to the proceedings with his impressive images of life in the hospital and the trials and tribulations of family life, including  the very unholy Christmas celebrations which culminate with Iris using the electric carving knife as a weapon of destruction, not just to serve the turkey.  

As is often the case in German cinema, Heiss and her co-writer adopt a rather didactic approach to the material which rather spoils the overall fluidity in this worthwhile study that charts the much-needed changes in German psychiatry in the latter part of the 20th century. AS

OPENING FILM OF THE GENERATION STRAND | BERLINALE 2023

Family Time (2023) Berlinale | Encounters 2023

Dir: Tia Kouvo | Cast: Ria Kataja, Elina Knihtila, Leena Uotila, Tom Wentzel, Jarkko Pajunen, Sakari Topi, Elli Paajanen, Toomas Talikka; Finland/Sweden 2023, 114 min.

Three generations come together during the Christmas holidays in this insightful study of familial ties developed from a short by its first time Finnish director Tia Kouvo.

Amid the usual round meals, domestic chores and saunas, intimacies will surface in a drama that relies on body language and facial expressions as well as discursive interludes. What is not said often becomes more revealing – and intriguing – than the usual outspoken discussions, although Kuovo includes some grim confrontations demonstrating just how unbearable family get-togethers can be when false bonhomie is the order of the day. Set in two parts, Family Time shows eight people trying not to comes to blows in exploring their everyday experiences of alienation and sickness.

The celebration take place in the family home near Lathi with parents and grand-parents Ella (Uotila) and Lasse (Wentzel; Susanna ((Kataja) and husband Risto (Pajunen) and their two children Hilla (Pajaanen) and Kassu (Talikka); and Susanna’s sister Helena (Knihtila), and partner Simo (Topi).

Although women are known to often have the upper hand in Nordic society, Kuovo’s  characters are not appreciated by their husbands. Susanna has to propose her own toast for a recent promotion as design boss for a local supermarket. Her family seemingly could not care less, voicing disappointment that she is not in charge of the entire operation throughout Finland. Hilla tries to liven things up by pretending to direct a TV film, casting her family as the protagonists. Grandfather Lasse is an alcoholic, banished to his own room for spoiling the atmosphere, and soiling the floor. Naturally the women are left to clean up the mess. In a farcical scene Ella plays Santa Claus, complete with the outfit, handing round the presents after lunch. The men recede into the background of these domestic charades, the women put  on a brave face, wishing it could be over sooner than later, but voicing the opposite.

The second part is a scenario of “what typically happens in the New Year.” Susanna and Risto finally come to blows after the stress of having to look after Hilla and Kassu on top of their busy careers. But although Susanna craves intimacy, Risto is happy to read a SciFi novel from the 1950s, coldly ignoring her attempts to engage with him. Next day, they lock themselves into the car in the garage and have another confrontation, away from their kids. Nothing is resolved and Susanna falls asleep from sheer emotional exhaustion. Meanwhile, Helena and Simo make pleasantries in a banal attempt to communicate. Ella and Lasse catch up with his old friend from seafaring days, she regaling him with stories of people he has never heard of.

Kouvo and DoP Jesse Jalonen observe these curious human interactions, and while the protagonists talk – not so much to each other but just to be heard – the camera focuses on desultory objects. Family Time is a mature and memorable debut, Kouvo channelling Bergman, in his obsession to sweat the small stuff. Certainly a name to remember for the future. AS

BERLINALE | ENCOUNTERS 2023

 

El Echo (2023)

Dir.: Tatiana Huezo; Documentary with Montse Hernandez, Sarahi Hernandez, Uriel Hernandez, Ramiro Hernandez. Members of the Tapia and Gonzales families;; Mexico/Germany 2023, 102 min.

El Salvadorian born, Mexican writer/director Tatiana Huezo follows her outstanding drama debut Prayers for the Stolen, with a female-centric documentary feature that follows three families during a year in a remote Mexican mountain village where – once again – a little girl is the focus.

Montse (Montserrat Hernandez) is a studious, soulful child who loves animals and a cares for her elderly relative. She dreams of becoming a teacher and is already practising being ‘very strict but knowledgeable’ in preparation for her future. But Montse realises she must leave the village to pursue her dream career. Her mother Sarahi Rojas Hernandez, who had married young without finishing High School, is not a role model for Montse, who feels -rightly – that she will be held back simply because of her gender. Father, Uriel Hernandez, like many men in the village, works in a factory during the week and expects his wife to look after the children, take care of the animals, and cook for the family, whilst he relaxes at the weekend.

After a meal, he tells his son Ramiro to leave the plates on the table. “The washing up is for the women, you do not have to do it”. Montse can see her mother obeying her husband, even though she sometimes contradicts him. But Montse eventually leaves home with just a back-pack. Another local, visiting the her in the city, communicates Montse’s mother’s desire to keep in touch.

Huezo paints a picture of a society still stuck in the Dark Ages where women are second class citizens and men put their feet up, leaving all the chores to their wives and daughters. Montse is a critical observer of this state of affairs, but her fellow females more or less coalesce to the status quo, and follow the rules without questioning.

DoP Ernesto Pardo stays close to his subjects, capturing the austerity of the terrain, and the womens’ emotions that often betray a contradiction to their spoken words. The Echo is a timely essay about home and exile, obedience and rebellion, all caught with a minimum of drama. Tatiana Huezo proves once again that minimalism is a powerful way to show how the ordinary can become extraordinary. AS

NOW SCREENING AT VIENNALE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 19-30 OCTOBER 2023 |

BERLINALE | COMPETITION 2023 Jury Prize | Encounters – Berlinale 2023

 

Il Castillo (2023) Berlinale 2023

Dir.: Martin Benchimol; Cast: Justine Olivo, Alexia Caminos Olivo; Argentina/France 2022, 77 min.

The first solo feature film from Argentine director Marin Benchimol, whose short films have garnered prizes on the festival circuit, is a tight little dark comedy, set deep in the Argentine Pampa, where time has stood still, and class divisions are as blatant as in the era of Juan and Eva Peron.

Sadly, no one is now king of this colossal castle. Once again the inheritance is just a poisoned challis: a once splendid building left by the owner to her former house-keeper Justina (J. Olivo) – with the obligation never to sell the property – the poor woman cannot afford to pay for the upkeep, let alone the much-needed new roof and plumbing system.

The former owner has paid a cruel trick on her devoted employee who she still treats like a servant and smiles benignly on the many photos in a house which is now a burden to Justina and her daughter Alexia (A.C. Olivo). Her family now live in the city, and only comes to El Castillo to celebrate family anniversaries and large gatherings. Meanwhile Justina and her daughter Alexia (A C Olivo) are saddled with a white elephant.

The two new owners might have shared a symbiotic relationship back in the day, but now Alexia is grown up and wants to leave home to work as a car mechanic in the city, with a view to a career a as a Formula Four racing driver. With this in mind, she has installed a play station console and huge screen in her room, and practises on this dummy race track, while stuck in the Pampa with her demanding Mum. It seems the umbilical cord is still attached: when she finally escapes the mansion in her battered car, unforeseen circumstances see her phoning home to her mother for help.

Meanwhile Justine is forced to sell off the livestock, one by one, with the wealthy family making improbable proposals to solve the crisis: there is no doubt they are just waiting for Justine to give up and leave. Justine’s love life is like a running gag, her husband/boyfriend always promising to come and visit, but bailing out at the last moment. Alexia, whose name her mother shouts whenever she gets stuck with a problem – ie. very often, finally makes it to the city, leaving poor Justina wondering whether she will remain an old retainer forever.

Benchimol keeps everything spare in a narrative that never overplays its hand. The interaction between mother and daughter is a portrait of bitter rivalry, with the loser facing a life-shattering defeat. Justina, living in a past, where she was treated like a human being by her mistress, is now at a loss in a fast-moving technological world. The wealthy family look on in quiet satisfaction, during their sporadic visits, having adjusted successfully to their new way of life.

Nico Miranda and Fernando Lorenzale evoke a Henry James like setting of decay and destructive emotions, The colours are saturated perfectly capturing the languid downhill road ahead. Alexia’s failed attempt to escape is symbolic of the emotional cue de sac the two women are caught in. A sad variation on the “Odd-Couple” theme. Intriguing and highly entertaining modern fairytale, if not always successfully structured. AS

BERLINALE 2023 | PANORAMA

Disco Boy (2023)

Dir.: Giacomo Abbruzzese; Cast: Franz Rogowski, Morr Ndiaye, Laetitia Ky, Mikhail Balicki; France/ Poland/Belgium/Italy 2023, 91 min.

Best known for his award-winning short documentary films Giacomo Abbruzzese’s ambitious feature debut centres on the destiny of two men from opposite ends of the world. But despite a clever idea and the extraordinary power of Helene’s Louvart’s magical visuals – which won her a reward for Best Artistic contribution at this year’s Berlinale – Disco Boy’s characters do not share the same ideals and so can never fulfil the film’s plot resolution: one is a soulful humanist hero, the other is merely out for himself.

On a bus crammed with raucously chanting football fans Aleksei (Rogowski) and his friend Mikhail (Balicki) leave the beleaguered republic of Belarus bound for the West, via Poland, on their three-day visa.

In a river near the German/Polish border the men are confronted by German Police on boats. Shots are fired, and Aleksei continues his journey alone. In Paris he undergoes the gruelling procedure of enlisting in the Foreign Legion. The arduous training will eventually achieve his aim of gaining French citizenship.

Thousands of miles away in the Niger Delta Jomo (Ndiaye) and his friend Udoka (Ky) are rebel fighters struggling for the survival of their families, their home, their lives – against the Western-backed government in hock to mighty oil giants. Jomo (Ndiaye) will come head to head with Aleksei, who is leading his men to liberate French hostages kidnapped by the rebel forces.

Jomo and Udoka  in the ensuing battle, their souls travel with Aleksei to Paris, where he drinks a glass of Bordeaux in memory of Mikhail – saying goodbye to his past for good -before embarking on a career as disco dancer – the same dream Jomo had. The two merge, and Udoka joins them: Aleksei, a stranger forever in Paris, has finally found fellow travellers, who live like him, in-between worlds.

Disco Boy scores highly on the cinematic front: a light show in its own right full of explosive set pieces – not only in the battle zones – boats glide along the Seine as well as the Niger their lights illuminating the glittering night skies where coloured comets are in free-fall as the whole universe comes alive with sight and sound.

In this magnificent milieu Abbruzzese hopes for a union of souls where the men will merge into one humanitarian mission. Even Franz Rugowski cannot redeem Aleksei who is dislocated in more than one way so there can never be a meeting of the minds with Jomo and Udoka who are selfless humanitarians fighting to keep their home, their village – their lives. Disco Boy is too clever by half to be disingenuous: a feature so rich in talent shoots itself in the foot by letting us feel we are being manipulated because we can see the strings. AS

In CINEMAS FROM 27 March 2024 | BERLINALE 2023 | BEST ARTISTIC CONTRIBUTION COMPETITION

Totem (2023)

Dir: Lila Aviles | Naima Senties, Montserrat Maranon, Marisol Gase, Saori Gurza, Mateo Garcia | Mexico, Drama 95′

Totem is another observational piece of filmmaking from Mexican filmmaker Lila Alviles whose debut The Chambermaid garnered awards all over the world. Seen through the eyes of a little girl called Solecita who is a mine of information about the animal kingdom, a place she escapes to avoid the trauma of her father Tona’s terminal illness.

From the exuberant opening scenes in a public restroom the handheld camera thrusts into the intimate hurly burly of domestic life in a whir of comings and goings of the extended family, in a hive of activity where nothing is left to the imagination -except the nature of Tona’s illness -as preparations for his forthcoming birthday are well underway. His wife, an alcoholic with a glass of whisky on the go at all times, is baking a cake, and her sister dyeing her hair.  Her uncle Napo soon turns up with a goldfish, and Sol and her brother and little sister name it Nugget.

Close up and personal drama centric movie about an entire family who live together. mother and daughter singing in a public lavatory in close up and personal family relationship.

Meanwhile in the hushed confines of his bedroom Tona -a local celebrity in the local community – is suffering the agonies of some kind of debilitating illness possibly cancer, his carer Cruz tending him patiently all the time aware of the impact his possibly terminal affliction is having on little Sol – an astonishing in her screen debut.- a sensitive little girl who takes everything seriously – not least the end of the world and other matters existential

The family have been putting their heads together to find a way forward for Tona’s treatment – he has been taking morphine but drugs are expensive in Mexico, and chemo is also up for debate.  A mystical faith healer has been called into clear the house of evil spirits and balance the positive  energy: Ludica has located good energy in a part of the room where the grandmother used to sit and she then sweeps the room with a flaming loaf of bread, charging 3000 pesos for her services. The grumpy grandfather – who speaks through a special gadget – has been tending a bonsai  for the past 8 years, a gift especially for his son special day.

Giving up on traditional medicine the family put their faith in their spiritual beliefs in a union of souls which gives the film some of its most exuberant scenes captured by DoP Diego Tenorio. In the light of Tona,’s worsening condition these jubilant celebrations are tinged with a certain poignance making them all the more significant. And although weak and in pain he is determined to make an appearance, and when he does so friends and family are over-joyed to see him and send brightly coloured balloons into the night sky as a gift for the gods. The birthday is a wonderful occasion in rich colours lots of dancing and a special performance from Sol. Ending with an extraordinary booming sound as if the whole universe is resounding in support of Tona. The final scene is simply breathtaking. MT

NOW IN UK CINEMAS 1 DECEMBER 2023 | Totem is Mexico’s Academy Award submission 2024

Cidade Rabat (2023)

Dir: Susana Nobre | Raquel Castro, Paula Barcia, Laura Afonso | Drama 101

Portuguese director Susana Nobre won the prestigious La Femis Scholars’ Award with her short film Provas, Exorcismos. She is back in the Berlinale with Cidade Ribat a follow-up to her unusual feature No Táxi do Jack, a part-road movie part-ethnological portrait of small-town rural Portugal.

Grief and the unsuspecting consequence of mourning are the focus of this laconic drama that centres on 40 year old Helena (Castro), a typical 21st century ‘everywoman’ who seems to take life in her stride, juggling a lover, an ex-husband, a daughter, and her elderly mother – who we meet briefly in an early vignette – and whose death is viewed as just another daily task to be dealt with: we watch her choosing a casket with her sister. Yet, despite her obvious sadness the death provides an unexpected relief for Helena who has been so weighed down with her responsibilities and can now finally let her hair down, and she does.

With its limpid colours and artful compositions Cidade Ribat is quotidian yet thematically rich as a study of just how much 21st century women have to deal with and accomplish in their seemingly mundane everyday lives. Cidade Ribat is testament to how the world has moved on for women since the days of Jeanne Dealmann, yet this liberation and freedom has brought with it infinite complications. MT

IN ARTHOUSE CINEMAS | BERLINALE 2023 | FORUM

 

Here (2023) Berlinale 2023 | Encounters

Dir: Bas Devos | Cast: Liyo Gong, Stefan Goat | Drama, 82

A serendipitous relationship between a Romanian construction worker and a Belgian-Chinese woman slowly ignites in this subtle yet luminous feature from Belgian auteur Bas Devos.

Landscape, countryside and the built environment are integral characters in this lowkey love story that relies on Grimm Vendekerckhove’s exquisite camerawork and Devos’ spare dialogue to tell its charmingly cinematic story.  

Stefan is on the verge of going back to his own country and while doing the valedictory rounds with a parting gift for friends and family he chances upon his future lover who is preparing her doctorate on mosses. 

With Here Devos adds another spare but memorable fourth feature to his archive that started with Violet, Hellhole and Ghost Tropic. His features submerge us into their respective worlds so the storytelling becomes an organic experience, enveloping us the slowly developing love story between two characters very much at ease with their own respective lives in a glowing arthouse film that unfolds in a series of radiantly-crafted tableaux in 4:3 format. MT

BERLINALE 2023 | ENCOUNTERS | FIPRESCI PRIZE WINNER 2023

The Burdened (2023) Berlinale 2023 | Panorama

Dir.: Amr Gamal; Cast: Khaled Hamdan, Abeer Mohammed, Samah Alamrani, Awsam Abdulrahman; South Yemen/Sudan 2023, 91 min.

Polish-born Yemenite director Amr Gamal follows his 2018 feature debut Ten Days before the Wedding – the first to come out of the Yemen in 30 years – with a solemn and understated family drama.

Adopting a docudrama style Gamal paints a grim view of his country with this subdued ‘case study’. It’s October 2019 and the Yemenite capital of Aden is in social and economic turmoil with Isra’a (Mohammed) and Ahmed (Hamdan) amongst the victims of the economic crisis, with their fourth child on the way. Ahmed is still waiting to be paid by his employer, the state TV station, and his political persuasions prevent him from working for one of the private TV channels, although his wife is determined to have their kids educated in the private system. The couple seem caught between their political and their financial possibilities, and Ahmed has started to beat his wife.

But the most urgent problem is getting rid of the unplanned baby. Isra’a’s relative Muna is a doctor at the local hospital, but has refused them an abortion in the past on account of her own strict Islamist views. Trying to persuade her otherwise, Isra’a sends a video of a Koran scholar explaining that abortion is ‘Halal’ until the foetus develops a soul after 120 days. Grudgingly Muna agrees, but then Ahmed has to bribe the ER doctor for his signature to let the surgery go ahead. Meanwhile Isra’a realises the abortion will be the end to her friendship with Muna.

In the streets of the capital conflicting militias are fighting pitch battles for supremacy, make simple driving a hazard, Ahmed’s taxi – a loss making business – is damaged by one of their convoys, with little hope of repair.  DoP Mrinal Desai captures the mayhem with a handheld camera following hot on the heels of Ahmed and his beleaguered family, their own private civil war providing a metaphor for the state of the nation. AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | PANORAMA 2023 | AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL FILM AWARD WINNER 2023

 

 

The Beast in the Jungle (2023) Berlinale 2023

Dir.: Patric Chiha; Cast: Anais Demoustier, Tom Mercier, Beatrice Dalle, Martin Vischer, Sophie Demeyer; France/Austria/Belgium 2023, 103 min.

A doomed love story is given a twentieth century spin into the future in this dizzying drama, set against the chronicles of club music – from disco to techno – between 1979 and 2004.

The Beast in the Jungle was published exactly 120 years ago and is generally considered Henry James’ finest novella. Transporting the action from an English country mansion to a nightclub in Belgium, Patric Chiha’s fifth feature imagines a couple who meet on the dance floor at a beach rave in 1971.

John (Tom Mercier from Golden Bear 2019 Winner Synonymes) confesses to May (Demoustier) that he is destined to do something extraordinary with his life. When they meet again in a Paris club five years later, May reminds him of his bold claim, and John invites her to join him for the big event. May is already involved with Alice (Demeyer), a graphic designer, but is increasingly drawn to Pierre (Vischer) who loves her unconditionally.

In the background, but somehow taking centre stage, is the “physionomiste” (Dalle) who controls admissions to the club. There is a running commentary on topical news items such as the election of Francois Mitterand, first socialist president of the V. Republic in 1981 – but May and John are oblivious as they wander around absorbed in each other. A man in a car shouts “this is a night for fucking, not walking” – hitting on a raw nerve in the couple’s relationship: they have not yet – nor ever will  – make love, and they only touch each other just before the end when they attempt to dance for the first time.

The “Berlin Wall” falls in 1989 and by now May is married to Pierre, but she still meets John regularly, both waiting for the event that will change everything, to happen. The Aids epidemic impacts on the club’s attendance records but, unlike Alice, May and John seem unaffected by the tragedy – apart from the time when the club has to close. 

Finally all is revealed and, this being a Henry James novella, we know the ending will be a cruel one for those disaffected by love. Demoustier and Mercer are an ideal couple both being in love with the notion of their uniqueness. Mercier’s John is indifference personified, he hardly talks but gazes sullenly into the far away distance where he believes his promised land will materialise. Demoustier gives May enough enigmatic power to convince us that she believes in John’s prophecy. She rebuffs Pierre and Alice, who really care for her, and follows John on his path of vanity and self-glorification.

DoP Celine Bozon takes us on full throttle joyride through 25 years of music and dance, leaving the audience breathless. Beatrice Dalle is a perfect club impresario . dominating proceedings with her glowering presence, Chiha always ensuring that the focus is on the leading couple and not on the excitement of the all-consuming rave. Melancholic, like Mia Hansen-Love’s take on the same period of counter-culture music in Eden, The Beast in the Jungle is full of bizarre events, held together by James’ spirit of sadistic emotional obsession. AS

BERLINALE FiLM FESTIVAL 2023 | 15 – 26 FEBRUARY 2023

 

 

Rimini (2022)

Dir: Ullrich Seidl Wris: Ullrich Seidl, Veronika Franz | Cast: Michael Thomas, Tessa Gottlicher, Hans Michael Rehberg, Ibrahim Isiktas | Austria, Drama 116′

Rimini is a comedy of the most tragic kind. Accurately reflecting the tawdry reality of life in a washed-out seaside town in winter where lost souls come together disillusioned by lives that turned out to be shadows of their hopes and dreams it pictures the sleety coalface of the 21st century as it really is for many, warts and all.

Fans of Austrian auteur Ullrich Seidl will welcome another addition to the archive. Rimini is less horrific than his gruesome Safari. More long the lines of Paradise: Faith, and Paradise: Love this latest is less poetic, infinitely more grotesque and quietly brilliant in its acute observations. A muted colour palette and exquisite compositions offer some visual redemption but for the most part Rimini is a heart-sinking film to watch.

The first and only laugh comes near the beginning when the main character, ageing nightclub singer Richie Bravo (Thomas), swaggers back home to Austria from his squallid apartment in Rimini to attend his mother’s funeral, during which his dementia-ridden father (beautifully played by Hans-Michael Rehberg) shouts out “who’s dead?” It’s an all too familiar situation for many and Rehberg (who died in 2017 shortly after filming) will also provide the film with its devastating finale that conveys the pity and poetry of this ghastly yet deeply affecting drama.

But when Richie later beds down in his single-bedded teenage room after the funeral, the sad truth emerges: his life has never really moved on from leaving home, to a failed relationship that inadvertently bore him a neglected daughter Tessa (Tessa Göttlicher). But more of that later.

Off-season Rimini is a tacky retirement backwater where the raddled paunchy figure of Richie Bravo returns. After the sobering events of the funeral, his sweaty leather trousers and bleach-blond looks still seem to cut the mustard with the budget crown of Austrian/German holidaymakers who are prepared to pay for a few awkward ‘senior’ moments between the sheets, despite the usual sexual accoutrements,  although passion has long left the bedroom for both parties.

The louche lounge lizard zips himself up and heads back for another grotesque stage appearance eking out strident cover versions from the past. And then home to confront Tessa who has suddenly fetched up in Rimini to reveal her pregnancy with a Muslim refugee (Isiktas) and is demanding bed and board along with his entourage of religiously observant pals. Tessa’s indomitable appearance provides the touchstone to reality that will bring Richie full circle to the present and a future of deeply-felt pain and financial hardship that will lead to his descent into venality. MT

ON RELEASE in the UK early in 2023

 

Robe of Gems (2022)

Dir/scr: Natalia López Gallardo. Mexico/Argentina/US. 2022. 118 mins

A visually striking, thought-provoking and disquieting feature debut from Natalia López Gallardo who joins a talented array of female filmmakers such as Tatiana Huezo (Prayers for the Stolen)and Fernanda Valadez (Identifying Features) in bringing more intriguing stories from Latin America.

Isabel (Nailea Norvind) and her family live with her mother (Monica Poggio) in a rambling estancia where the threat of gang violence seems a million miles away from their languorous existence, although for their housekeeper, Maria (Antonia Olivares), it is very real and possibly the reason for the recent disappearance of her sister. Isabel is going through some kind of emotional trauma of her own after a potential marital disagreement. At a loose end and in empathy with Maria, she decides to make some discrete but ultimately ill-advised inquiries of her own.

In a bid to be enigmatic Robe of Gems loses its impact drifting around nebulously between a police thriller and a stylistic arthouse drama until finally gaining some shape in the second hour. The connections between the characters are never fully explained, their lives gradually fading into view in the woozy heat of a Mexican summer, the focus on mid-shots and close-ups only adding to the air of mystery in a drama where a great deal happens off-camera, in a series of episodes. Beyond the artistic flourishes though, few clues are given to enable understanding or feeling for the rather buttoned-up characters. That all said, López Gallardo must be applauded for telling a sinister story with such a lightness of touch and without resorting to violence; the final scene is quietly devastating. MT

BFI London Film Festival 2022 | SILVER BEAR JURY PRIZE WINNER | BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2022

 

Flux Gourmet (2022)

Dir/Wri: Peter Strickland | Cast: Asa Butterfield, Gwendoline Christie, Ariane Labed, Fatma Mohamed, Makis Papadimitriou | UK Comedy Horror, 110′

Blending elements from his previous offerings Peter Strickland concocts a mind-boggling soup of style over content. You will either relish Flux Gourmet – or retch into your popcorn.

The soundtrack has echoes of Berberian Sound Studio, but the look is distinctly In Fabric in style with its garishly macabre 19th mitteleuropaïschen overtones. There is the same teasing quality of The Duke of Burgundy but the narrative is precarious and difficult to pin down. The humour – if you can call it that – is deadpan and lavatorial rather than witty or amusing. The performances are generally engaging, Strickland working with his core team of Gwendoline Christie and Fatma Mohamed Asa Butterrfield, Ariane Labed and Makis Papadimitriou boosting an eclectic cast. 

This is Strickland’s most self-indulgent and unrelatable film to date. Some may find it laborious – I certainly did. There is a feeling the auteurish filmmaker just wants to mock his audience with a piss-taking pot-pourri of outlandish ideas that somehow fail to make sense, let alone entertain.  

In an old English country house, Christie’s Jan Stevens runs residential courses in “sonic cooking” that boil down to a series of creative experimental events taking place with a live audience egging the team on. Participants are selected for their inspired ideas in preparing food, and invited to present their efforts during a series of workshops that culminate in a showcase showdown on the final evening. The sound element is provided by microphones placed strategically into the food that sometimes consists of whipped up terapins or pigs’ ears, and ultimately of those taking part, with ghastly results.

To add to the film’s bizarre nature, there is part-narration in Greek by flatulent commentator Stones (Makis Papadimitriou) who has the job of interviewing the attendees for an in-house journal. Stones is forced to share a dormitory with the rest of the team: tousle-haired Billy (Butterfield), the chain-smoking Lamina (Labed) and Elle (Mohamed). During the small hours, Stones makes frequent trips to the ensuite bathroom to fart ferociously and empty his bowels, and this malaise forces him to seek medical advice from Dr Glock (Bremmer) who takes delight in prolonging his agony with a battery of invasive tests, some of them staged for the live audience.

Meanwhile Billy has a fetish for eggs that somehow leads him into an erotic clinch with the voluptuous Jan Stevens (sporting a ‘Jester’ style nightcap). There are feint connotations to Marco Ferreri’s 1973 curio La Grande Bouffe but that was a film with heart and emotion. Flux Gourmet will no doubt go down in history as a “cult classic”, a label it does not really deserve. There is a visceral emptiness here that leaves you with a feeling of gut-churning disgust. But there again it may be ‘bread and meat’ to some. MT

ON RELEASE from 30 SEPTEMBER 2022  | BERLINALE 2022 PREMIERE.

 

Fire – Both Sides of the Blade (2022)

Dir: Claire Denis | Cast: Juliette Binoche, Vincent Lindon, Grégoire Colin, Issa Perica, Bulle Ogier, Mati Diop | France Drama 116′

Claire Denis explores the intense dynamics of a love triangle in this coruscating character drama that reunites her regular cast of Juliette Binoche, Vincent Lindon, Gregoire Colin and Bruno Podalydes.

Sara (Binoche) and Jean (Lindon) have been in love for nearly a decade living together in a stylish penthouse in Paris where she runs a radio station while Jean, a former professional rugby player, is getting back to normal after serving time. Despite his impulsiveness and potent physicality, Jean offers warmth and stability to Sara who can be controlling and neurotic, rather like his demanding mother Nelly (Ogier) now confined to the family home in the suburb Vitry where she barely manages his troubled teenage son Marcus (Perica) who is slowly going off the rails.

The opening sets the tone for this torridly sensual romantic drama with its elegantly ecstatic sex scenes: Jean and Sara are pictured cavorting in the sea on a winter break. Back in Paris grey skies call time on their idyllic romance when Sara’s saturnine former lover Francois comes back on the scene, offering Jean a new start as a talent coach in his rugby start-up. Sara has certainly found contentment with Jean but catching sight of Francois for the first time in ages leaves her breathless and ready for another dose of the intoxicating chemistry they once shared. Caught in the emotional crossfire between the two men in her life, she probes Jean obsessively for details about Francois and the new venture. But Jean keeps her in the dark while he processes his own feelings, fully aware of the dangers that lie ahead.

Cleverly adapting Christine Angot’s novel, Un tournant de la Vie, for the screen, Denis keeps the camera close and intimate but retains her distance, avoiding sentimentality in charting the emotional volatility and shifting moods with laser sharp intensity as a baleful score hints at turmoil and heartache for the star-crossed lovers. At this point ad libbing takes over between Lindon and Binoche as their onscreen relationship starts to falter and fall apart amid scenes of barely controlled hysteria as powerful emotions surface. Sara, in denial, tries to contain her turbulent thoughts and real motives, becoming defensive: Jean gives her tenderness and security but it is Francois who really sends her wild with his mercurial charm. Jean knows this love is out of control and he prepares to leave only just suppressing the hurt and fury he really feels inside.

The final scenes of enduring love imploding on the rocky shores of passion are revealing and compulsive to watch. Denis keeps us guessing right up to the devastating denouement which is left open to interpretation, satisfying in its ambiguity. MT

ON RELEASE FROM FRIDAY 9 SEPTEMBER | SILVER BEAR | BEST DIRECTOR | BERLINALE 2022

Incredible But True (2022)

Dir/Wri: Quentin Dupieux | 
Cast: Alain Chabat, Léa Drucker, Benoît Magimel, Anaïs Demoustier, Stéphane Pezerat
i | France, Comedy 74′

The age of electronic penises has finally arrived according french filmmaker Quentin Dupieux whose latest high-concept absurdist comedy sees two suburban couples trying to turn back the clock and pursue the dream of eternal youth with hilarious and disastrous consequences.

Middle-aged house-hunters Alain (Alain Chabat) and Marie (Léa Drucker) are captivated by a modernist villas in a leafy location near Paris and immediately move in. The house has a life-changing feature in the shape of a trapdoor to the basement: enter and you take three days off your life, while moving 12 hours forward. Marie is sceptical but soon becomes obsessed with going through the trapdoor and gradually the rejuvenating effects are noticeable. Alain struggles on with a difficult client, hoping not to lose his wife to a younger man. Meanwhile his boss and close friend Gérard (a paunchy Benoît Magimel) has an intriguing new toy to play with of his own. Invited chez Alain and Marie with his much younger girlfriend Jeanne (Anaïs Demoustier in bleach blonde mode), the two are desperate to share their cheeky secret about his new Japanese “electronic penis”, remotely operated by an iPhone.

Dupieux – also known as his DJ alter ego Mr Oiseau – certainly has a vivid imagination and his films get weirder and wackier with each passing year, Deerskin and Mandibles being recent examples. But although his ideas are plausible this blend of surreal and lowkey sci-fi feels out of place with the second-rate suburban settings and pedestrian characters, and the punchy plot lines are never full realised as they are for example in comedy sci fi outings such as Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man or the Korean comedy Miss Granny. Incredible But True is light-hearted fun that never takes itself seriously with a few laughs along the way thanks to some strong comedy performances before resorting to ludicrous back-to-back montage sequences in a rushed final showdown. MT

NOW ON MUBI | Berlinale premiere

 

The Quiet Girl (2021)

Wri/Dir: Colm Bairead | Cast: Catherine Clinch, Carrie Crowley, Andrew Bennett, Michael Patric, | Ireland, 94′

This delightful coming of age drama set in rural Ireland in the early 1980s is the Gaelic-language screen adaptation of Claire Keegan’s short story Foster and won a major Jury award at this year’s Generation sidebar at Berlin Film Festival.

Anyone who grew up in the era will really appreciate the exquisite attention to detail, and nuanced performances that delicately convey the mood without ever overdoing the emotion. And there are considerable emotions and harsh realities at play here: a dysfunctional family ground down by poverty; a little girl starved of love and attention; a grieving couple suffering in silence. The tranquil beauty of the Irish countryside seems to wrap them all in the soft blanket of summer but the hardships are undeniable and deeply affecting. This is a memorable modern classic that transcends the minor flaws in Colm Bairead’s feature debut.

Although she says nothing eight-year old Cait (Clinch) absorbs all the tensions at home where she is largely ignored by her older sisters, gambling father and pregnant mother and left to go hungry and unwashed to school where she struggles with lessons. An unexpected day out with her father culminates in a visit to a farm where she horrified to be left with Eiblin (Crowley) and Sean (Bennett) Kinsella, the middle aged couple who live there. Cait gradually blossoms in Eibhlin’s tender care and her being there seems to have a beneficial all round as she learns the ways of the farm with Sean who buys her new frocks and choc ices, Eileen showing her how to make jam and keep house during those happy summer holidays. She learns that not all men are bad, and some mothers are kind loving, although most women are gossips. But soon she must go back to school.

Slim of narrative but rich and resonant in the small details and in glorious settings captured in Academy Ratio by Kate McKulloch (Arracht), Bairead’s drama builds to an impactful climax and a deeply affecting ending. MT

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM OF THE YEAR | LONDON CRITICS’ CIRCLE

 

 

Robe of Gems (2022) Berlinale Film Festival | Silver Bear Jury Prize

Dir/scr: Natalia López Gallardo. Mexico/Argentina/US. 2022. 118 mins

A visually striking, thought-provoking and disquieting feature debut from Natalia López Gallardo who joins a talented array of female filmmakers such as Tatiana Huezo (Prayers for the Stolen)and Fernanda Valadez (Identifying Features) in bringing more intriguing stories from Latin America.

Isabel (Nailea Norvind) and her family live with her mother (Monica Poggio) in a rambling estancia where the threat of gang violence seems a million miles away from their languorous existence, although for their housekeeper, Maria (Antonia Olivares), it is very real and possibly the reason for the recent disappearance of her sister. Isabel is going through some kind of emotional trauma of her own after a potential marital disagreement. At a loose end and in empathy with Maria, she decides to make some discrete but ultimately ill-advised inquiries of her own.

In a bid to be enigmatic Robe of Gems loses its impact drifting around nebulously between a police thriller and a stylistic arthouse drama until finally gaining some shape in the second hour. The connections between the characters are never fully explained, their lives gradually fading into view in the woozy heat of a Mexican summer, the focus on mid-shots and close-ups only adding to the air of mystery in a drama where a great deal happens off-camera, in a series of episodes. Beyond the artistic flourishes though, few clues are given to enable understanding or feeling for the rather buttoned-up characters. That all said, López Gallardo must be applauded for telling a sinister story with such a lightness of touch and without resorting to violence; the final scene is quietly devastating. MT

SILVER BEAR JURY PRIZE WINNER | BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2022

 

Love, Deutschmarks and Death (2022) Berlinale 2022

Dir.: Cem Kaya; Documentary with Ismet Topçu, Yuksel Ozkasap, Cem Karaca, Ferdi Tayfur, Hatay Engin, Nellie; Germany 2022, 96 min.

Sixty years of Turkish music comes to life in this joyful documentary from Cem Kaya (Arabeks) taking us back to the early 1960s when the first trainload of migrant workers set off from Turkey for a foreign, mainly hostile, ‘guest’ country. Through their music these newcomers forged a collective identity which rapidly raised a red flag against the arrogance they met from the ‘Master Race’ ideology, still alive and kicking despite the withering defeat of the Second World War.

After the heart-wrenching scenes at Istanbul Central Station, where wives and children bade tearful good-byes to their departing menfolk (echoing the Italian neo-realist portrayals of those Italian ‘guest workers’ leaving), Kaya interweaves clips from a German documentary and TV/film archive clips showing the Turkish men gathered in a huge hall, ready to meet local doctors, who will sort the ‘wheat from the chaff’. “We are not looking for Olympic athletes here” says the commentator benignly, “but for reliant, capable workers”. And so it goes – the able-bodied are separated from the unfit. And then, the lucky ones get little numbers stuck on their wrists. No surprise that the Turks will have to learn basic German (the French are still putting their British post-Brexit resident hopefuls through the same ordeal in 2022!).

The first phrase they learn is: “Ich bin ein Ausländer (“I am a foreigner”), it will come in handy – as the voiceover narration nonchalantly declares – since 60% of Germans want nothing to do with these guest workers, two-thirds having a negative opinion of the newbies, viewed as “sub-humans” during Germany’s Fascist dictatorship.

Metin Türkoz was one of the first stars of the immigrant music scene. He sold millions of records. Yüksel Ozkasap was next, listened to not only in the Turkish villages, but by immigrant workers all over Europe, and selling more than 315 singles. In 1973, the Global Oil Crisis hit the German economy, and the Turkish immigrants were told to leave. Despite the solidarity between German and Turkish workers, the German Unions declined their support. Chancellor Willy Brandt made it clear in an interview “that our own workers come first”. The answer came loud and clear from “The Kanaken”, who performed without microphones. Their star was lead singer Cem Karaca, who had been exiled by Turkey for political reasons. But he got homesick, and returned after seven years of German life. There were odd figures in the Berlin Turkish scene, like Ferdi Tayfur, the star of the “Gazino’ culture, which flourished in Oranien Strasse in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Turkish culture was at that time centred around the Turkish Bazar, which was set up in the then-disused over-ground Tube-Station ‘Bülow Strasse’ close to the wall. Zeki Mühren and Oztürk Serengil featured heavily; as did Hatay Engin, a trans-singer who flirted openly with the audience. Female artists had a hard time, even though they abandoned their Burkas and head scarves. Derya Yildirm, a Baglana virtuoso, was one of the successful exceptions.

Xenophobia was on the rise in the mid 1980s, but when the Wall came down in 1989, violence against foreigners exploded in Germany. The outsiders were literally burnt to death in their flats, and jokes like “What’s the difference between Jews and Turks? Jews take it from behind”, were common. Turkish rap was a way in for young people who suffered parental neglect, roaming the streets from the age of ten onwards, while parents kept their noses to the grindstone. They are neither Turkish nor German – but very angry. “Islamic Force” from Kreuzberg was one of the early groups, followed by “Cartel” who only recorded one album, after their lead singer, Boe B, died of a heart attack at 28. Nowadays, Turkish rap music can still be found in German stores, six decades after its pioneers started selling their cassettes which are now collectors items amongst the older generation – together with the cherished old Deutsch Mark banknotes!

Informative and entertaining, this history of music as an identifier and political weapon is a joy to watch; full of irony and odd-ball characters who made life for themselves and  kept the faith: “Kanak for Life” declares Ismet Topçu, leading us through the decades of wild musical adventure. AS

Panorama Audience Award Winner –Panorama Dokumente 2022:| BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | 2022

Mutzenbacher (2022) Mubi

Dir.: Ruth Beckermann; Documentary; Austria 2022, 100 min.

After her much lauded 2016 film The Dreamed Ones that centred on correspondence between poets Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan, Mutzenbacher would make a better radio play than a feature film. The Austrian writer/director invites a group of men from all walks of life to read excerpts from the pornographic 1906 novel “Josefine Mutzenbacher” by Bambi author Felix Salten.

Banned as a novel, with its authorship contested in court. Mutzenbacher tells the story of a down at heel Viennese sex worker who, according to the author, revelled in being abused from an early age.

The men are invited to share their thoughts on the novel, the majority viewing the “olden days” of the 20th century in a positive light in contrast to today where women are viewed as the ‘victims’ rather then the welcome recipients of unsolicited sexual attention, more so if they are minors. Most of the men fail to take into account that the author was a male, middle-class white man who skews the narrative from his own perspective claiming his heroine enjoyed his advances, even her own father makes her out to be horny at the tender age of ten: “Women had fun with men back in the day, now the focus is always negative, like toxic masculinity.”

For Josefine, even being examined by a doctor is purportedly sexually arousing – especially when her father is in the same room. Only a few of the men point out that children like Josefine were in fact made to feel guilty, questioning whether they were at fault in the first place. It appears that fear and lust make for arousing bedfellows. Even incest is described by Salten as an overwhelmingly pleasurable experience. Josephine’s resume says it all: “We are pounded, they pound us, that’s all there is to it.”

A shame then that such an important and timely debate should be undermined by Beckermann, who must have thought that reducing everything to a stripped down version of text would somehow enhance the audience’s understanding. A hundred minutes of verbal battering in a single room is in the end self-defeating: instead of revealing the “male gaze”, the lack of any structure or aesthetic concept simply diminishes the argument, levelling everything out into a repetitive experience. AS

NOW ON MUBI | Best Director Prize | BERLINALE ENCOUNTERS 2022

Northern Skies Over Empty Space (2022) Berlinale Panorama

Dir.: Alejandra Marquez Abella; Cast: Gerardo Trejoluna, Paloma Petra, Dolores Heredia, Mayra Hermosillo, Francesco Barreiro, Juan Daniel Garcia Trevino, Raul Briones; Mexico 202, 115 min.

After her first feature, The Good Girls, a superficial comedy of manners, Mexican director/co-writer Alejandra Marquez Abella, comes up trumps with a hard hitting neo noir Western, a stylish, epic tale of violence and spurned love. Brilliantly shot by DoP Claudia Becerril Bulos, this is a mixture of Italo-Western and soap-opera, with an ending like Rene Clement’s late feature La course du lièvre à travers les champs.

Don Reynaldo (Trejoluna) is a ranch owner near the city of Monterrey. Ranch and owner are decaying, and family life is more than complicated. Suffering from prostate cancer and failing eyesight, Reynaldo (‘Rey’) can’t even hunt any more – his greatest hobby, as documented by the many trophies in the mansion, which has seen also better times. He is married to long suffering Sofia (Heredia), whose life is dominated by the menopause. Rey’s best (and only friend) is Rosa (Petra), the dominant manager of the state, who even shoots a deer for her master, after he has muffed the shots. Apart from her, everyone in the family wants to inherit the ranch, even though nobody takes any responsibilities, leaving Rey to mis-manage the property, whilst still pretending to be a great hunter. He has an ambivalent relationship with his son Elias (Barreiro), who is going through a divorce, and might lose custody of his children. Elias wants nothing more than be loved by his father, and Sofia reminds her husband to show some affection. Daughter Lily (Hermosillo), once dad’s favourite, is now distancing herself from the once proud patriarch. Then, one the day, Rey is celebrating the founding of the ranch by his father, a stranger, calling himself Guzman (Briones), appears and asks for ‘Protection’ money. Rey sends him away, but we all know, that the man, or even worse characters, will appear again. Rey, obviously having a death wish, sends everyone of his his family away. Only Rose, pregnant after having been gang-raped, will fight Rey to the bitter end – but not before she makes the most astonishing confessions.

There’s enough going on here in to sustain our attention for the two hours running time. Petra carries the film and the conflicting interests of Rey and his family, as well as the few employees left. The atmosphere is maudlin from the beginning, and amid the escalating violence and betrayals, Rey gradually loses control while the family run for cover. Rosa and Rey seem to be the only couple with mutual feelings – until the former’s disclosure seems to pull the rug from underneath what Rey and the audience assumed to be the truth in this impressive spectacle of class conflict, opportunism, greed, shattered illusions and death. AS

BERLINALE | PANORAMA 2022

The Passengers of the Night (2022) Berlinale 2022

Dir: Mikhaël Hers; Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Quito Rayon-Richter, Megan Northam, Emmanuelle Beart, Noée Abita, Thibault Vinçon; France 2022, 111 min.

Charlotte Gainsbourg plays a single mother in this rather one note 1980s domestic drama from La Fremis graduate Mikhaël Hers and his regular scriptwriter Maud Ameline.

It’s June 1981 and Mitterand’s socialist government has come to power ushering in an era of change with refreshing implications for all the family: not least for Elisabeth (Gainsbourg) whose life will never be the same after she lands a job on a late night chat show.

Newly divorced and now in her early forties, Elisabeth is living in a spacious modern apartment in Paris with her unruly teenagers Judith (Northam) and Matthias (Rayon-Richter). And while her kids are caught up in the wave of positivity sweeping though the city, Elisabeth is not feeling their joy: suffering the after affects of a mastectomy, she’s struggling to make ends meets without any maintenance payments, but after a few near misses she finally lands a much needed job with Emmanuelle Beart’s agony aunt ‘Madame Dorval’ and the two get on like a house on fire. Dorval is sweetness and light to her listeners, but a tyrant to all her staff.

Things look up on the romantic front when Elisabeth meets Hugo (Vinçon), but life then becomes more complicated when she finds herself ‘adopting’ a ‘third child’ in the shape of young junkie Talulah (Abita), who has a brief fling with Mathias. With the family flat then having to be sold soon, major changes are suddenly on the cards.

Sébastian Buchmann creates imaginative, idyllic images that capture the infectious positivity of the era but what Passengers needed was a few hard edges, contrasting the rough with the smooth. Elisabeth comes over as plucky and endlessly driven along with her benign father who never complains despite his ill health. Beart’s Vanda Dorval is the only one (apart from the off- screen husband) allowed to be unlikeable in a drama that often crosses the line between emotion and sentimentality. AS

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2022

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