Berlinale 2015: Day 4

By Sascha Krieger

Knight of Cups (Competition / United States / Director: Terrence Malick)

Life and the universe in general, love, life, birth and death and everything in-between. No doubt, Terrence Malick doesn’t do it below this. When they work, his essay poems about the great existential questions are mesmerizing, test the limits of what film can do, convey a truth words alone can never carry. When they don’t, they become tedious, pretentious exercises by a film maker going through the motions. Unfortunately, his first Berlinale competition entry sind The Thin Red Line won the Golden Bear in 1999, decidedly belongs to the latter category. It might even be its first entry. „Where do I begin“, the disembodied voice of Christian Bale repeatedly asks. Wherever that might be, it never happens. The camera hovers as usual, mostly around Bale who, it seems from the few hints we get, is a not too successful screenwriter, going through various attempts at relationships, some remembered, some more imagined, deals with family baggage and doesn’t say much. What is clear is that he’s lost for any real direction in his life. Malick illustrates further by his usual juxtaposition of the individual against a vast, beautiful and autonomous universe, in this case mostly the beaches and mountains around Los Angeles. Except when he speaks the commentary that goes from voice to voice, character to character and talks of the pilgrimage that is life, fragments one tries to put together to get at a bigger picture that never emerges, speaks of a fear of living– all household ingredient of a kitchen sink kind of philosophy of life. The sound quickly moves into and even faster out of scenes, the musical score dominated by Vaughan Williams, Grieg and Debussy is ever-present, several narrative levels co-exist at the same time. However, the bigger picture never emerges. For  a very simple reason: Its component parts don’t mean anything. Those who appreciate Malick’s unique film making aren’t used to disappointments. They’d better brace themselves this time.

Knight of Cups (Melinda Sue Gordon © Dogwood Pictures)

Knight of Cups (Melinda Sue Gordon © Dogwood Pictures)

El botón de nácar (Competition /France, Chile, Spain / Director: Patricio Guzmán)

Water is the stuff life is made of, it might even be the key ingredient that makes life possible. In case we didn’t know this already, El botón de nacár makes it abundantly clear. It begins with a long introduction explaining the importance of water which slowly moves to the role it plays in the remoteness that is western Patagonia, Chile’s southern most part. After showing us water in all kinds and sizes – ice, rivers, sea, rain, from up close or far away, mixed with images of far away stars and galaxies and somewhat closer planets, we meet some inhabitants of the area, telling us about the importance of water. From here, the film moves on to talk about the history of the indigenous tribes of the region, sea nomads all of them, their near extinction in what can only be described as a genocide, and ultimately the crimes of the Pinochet era. All is related, water being the source of life and witness to its extinctions. While the stories told are haunting and the original photography inserted a strong narrative in its own right, the film is overwrought in its attempt to turn the documentary into a film essay, the would-be philosophical too thin, the constant barrage of water imagery and philosophizing about its importance soon becomes repetitive and ultimately tiring. El botón de nacár aims at the universal, wants to transform its narrative into art, transcending the documentary form which, taken seriously, might very well have been much more effective.

Mr. Holmes (Out of Competition / United Kingdom / Director: Bill Condon)

Sherlock Holmes, the most famous detective of all times, a man immortalized by the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle – or was it – Dr. John Watson? – is over 90 years old, long retired, shacked up with a latently hostile housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her bright, curious son (Milo Parker) in a country home somewhere along the Channel coast. Of course, Holmes befriends the boy and eventually, though not before a potentially tragic accident, warms the mother’s heart. Nothing new here. Condon dives deeply into the cliché reservoir, adding some flashbacks, revealing why he retired, what his major fault in life was and trying to amend it a little bit. His growing senility might have made a good drama but is little less than a ploy quickly discarded when no longer needed. Mr. Holmes  ruminates about memory and truth and fiction but remains at the surface, as inconsequentially charming as the sunny English countryside in which it takes place. What holds the viewer’s attention, at least for a while, is McKellen’s understated, ironic performance completely devoid of any vanity. Mr. Holmes is a highly conventional and rather slight effort that charms through its main star (who the camera cannot get enough of) and a clever enough plot that doesn’t have Conan Doyle’s ingenious talent for entertaining but takes a hint or two from the master.

Ausência (Panorama / Brasil, Chile, France / Director: Chico Teixeira)

The opening: A truck waits at traffic lights in an unnamed Brazilian city. A pause, time to reflect perhaps, a chance for the charted cause not to unfold. It’s missed. The truck contains a father and his friends emptying his family’s apartments of all his possessions. This is the last we  and his teenage son Serginho – see of him. This is, as the tittle announces, a film about absence – and the longing to turn it into presence. Serginho isn’t very good at that. At the end of the film, mother and brother will have left, too, and the surrogate father he was craving will have rejected him. Another, bigger truck is moving through the nicht, this time carrying Serginho. To a better future? Who knows? Matheus Fagundes plays a boy caught between a child longing to be loved and the young, responsible man, the feeble adults require him to be. The camera feasts in his innocent, yet knowing face, enamored by his pleading, curious and demanding big brown eyes. The coarse-grained, palish images, the matter-of-fact, entirely unsentimental photography revolve around him, he is the center of gravity, the only real sane and alive person in the film. The pressures of growing up in a socially not really stable environment – and in general – show in these memorable eyes that find love, if at all, in a dog only. Yet, the film is anything but hopeless. Somehow, the viewer gets the feeling that Serginho will get by and more than this: he’ll live. It’s all in the eyes – of the beholder and the object of our gaze.

How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) (Panorama / Thailand, United States, Indonesia / Director: Josh Kim)

In Thailand, all young men at the age of 21 have to enter a draft lottery which decides who has to do his military service and who doesn’t. Ek and Jai, a couple since school, face this event which, given the volatile situation in the country, can be one about life and death. Ek, having lost both parents, lives in a state of near poverty, while Jai comes from a richer family, a fact that can enhance your luck when the lots are drawn. The third in the equation is Ek’s 11-year-old brother Oat whose 21-year persona serves as the narrator. Director Josh Kim tells a story of love, class division and the choices we make to survive. Ek will make his, Oat others, plain morality does not always win the day. The film unfolds in a subtle, poetic rhythm, quietly impressionistic images dominated by the cool and bright colors of the night. How to Win at Checkers takes the time to develop its characters, casting a sympathetic eye on its protagonists and focusing on the credibility of their actions. While it does employ a few melodramatic set pieces, particularly near its end, it mostly keeps a fine balance that never allows dramatic effects to override a story that deals with the conflicting issues of class, power, morality and love in a way that is never simplistic and pays attention to details. A slightly more realistic approach might not have hurt as the focus does falter at times, paying a little more attention to the film’s stylish look than absolutely necessary. For a directorial debut, these are certainly forgivable flaws.

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