Berlinale 2016: Day 2

By Sascha Krieger

Midnight Special  (Competition / United States / Director: Jeff Nichols)

It all starts with a kidnapping: an 8-year-old boy is missing. Soon it turns out that his parents were not his real ones, that he was adopted by a sect leader and his wife and apparently rescued by his birth father. Midnight Special is a film that lays out false traces until the domestic drama has turned into a fully fledged science-fiction mystery thriller in which the boy (Jaeden Lieberher with a wonderfully detached performance) is revealed to be rather special. Here’s the problem: while the film’s style remains rather conventional realism, while it starts out as intense family drama driven by claustrophobic night shots it also becomes quickly enamoured by its visually convincing special effects as another, possibly better, world is revealed beyond the not so glamourous reality the boy eventually leaves behind. Midnight Special is an undoubtedly skilled mix of standard fare such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Unfortunately it doesn’t really add anything to the genre, the protagonist remains elusive, the rest of the cast little more than functional, the utopian nature of the alternative world and the social criticism of the whole enterprise largely unexplored. However, the film is capable of captivating viewers for its just under two hours. A competition film at an A festival, however, it is not.

Midnight Special (Ben Rothstein © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC)

Midnight Special (Ben Rothstein © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC)

Boris sans Béatrice (Competition / Canada / Director: Denis Coté)

Boris Malinovsky is a proud man. In the film’s opening shot he stands in the middle of a field, stubbornly refusing to yield to the air whipped up by a landing helicopter. He is arrogant, selfish, angry and bitter. As a response, his wife Béatrice has succumbed to depression or at least that’s what he’s told by a mysterious man who says that she can only be healed if he changes. So he does, discarding his lovers and reconnecting with mother and daughter. Boris sans Béatrice is part morality tale and parable, part realistic character study. It fails at both. Too stilted, to contrived are the clear, clean imagery, and the way too simplistic plot and structure, too plump the dialogue. Boris remains a two-dimensional puppet and the morale is reduced to the level of „Treat those around you nicely.“ Some of us don’t need a mysterious man in Indian clothes to tell us that.

Inhebbek Hedi (Competition / Tunisia, Belgium, France / Director: Mohamed Ben Attia)

Inhebbek Hedi  is a coming of age film. Which is strange, given that Hedi, the film’s protagonist, is at least in his mid- to late 20s. But up to now he has had no control over his life. His mother and brother have run the show: got him a wife, a job, a house, mostly without even asking. Until now, Hedi’s response has ben to withdraw. He mounts no opposition and doesn’t even flinch when his mother once again compares him unfavourable to his brother. Going away on a work assignment begins to change things, up to the point when he finally confronts his mother – and himself. As it turns out, however, it’s much harder finding out what he wants than discovering what he doesn’t. A fate he shares with his country – the Tunisian part of the Arab Spring is mentioned.The film has an unexcited, laid-back tone, the handheld camera is always close but very calm, affirming the distance Hedi has cultivated. As he grows, the camera becomes more restless. The story is all in his face which gradually becoming livelier and slowly opening up. There is a key scene: attending a traditional party, he dances himself into a self-forgetting ecstasy. We see his face moving and with it the camera, giving the scene an almost blurred look. Old certainties implode, roles collapse. The ending catches Hedi in the middle of decision-making. His growth isn’t over and it doesn’t even seem irreversible. But at least it has begun.

Sufat Chol (Panorama / Israel / Director: Elite Zexer)

A proud and self-confident face, alert eyes, a promising smile: Layla is a university student with a boyfriend she loves and wants to marry. But she is also a Bedouin living in Israel as well as in a world apart (we only hear of Israel once in a report about houses demolished by the military). And in this society women don’t have control over their lives, not Layla, not her mother Jalila who has to prepare the house for her husband’s second wife. Sufat Chol (Sand Storm) is filmed with a handheld camera which mostly remains calm but mirrors the emotional climaxes when they happen. It follows the characters, especially Layla, closely as first she and then her previously hard and cruel mother mount their private rebellions against the patriarchal status quo. The film is full of one on ones, close and distant, loving and confrontational. The drama is intimate, private, but also existential. Sufat Chol  unfolds quietly, eschewing the spectacular. It constantly moves back and fort between the narrow, dark confines of the house’s interior and the brighter, only slightly wider ones of its courtyard. There is no happy ending to this haunting, intimate and deeply moving story but the viewer will have a hard time not to take some solace from the strong women fighting for independence. Change might not be there yet but it’s too early to give up hope.

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