By Sascha Krieger
L’avenir (Competition / France, Germany / Director: Mia Hansen-Løve)
French Berlinale entries have traditionally often been star vehicles. Catherine Deneuve had her competition films, Juliette Binoche, too. Films whose main value was their main actress. Isabelle Huppert has now joined that illustrious group. In L’avenir, she plays a philosophy teacher in her forties. Her kids are grown up, her mother dies, her husband leaves her. Even her ideas are outdated as a new generation of idealists and would-be revolutionaries, exemplified in a former pupil, emerges. While the film avoids the most obvious plot line, an affair with the young man and does not go for the spectacular, it is full of clichés, papier maché characters, pleasantly calm but mildly energetic handheld camerawork and the soft, natural light and unobtrusive realism so typical for this kind of fare. At least, Huppert’s portrayal of an assured, self-confident woman long settled in routine that sees her old life dissolve, is convincing, subtle and not without humour. Her opening up is mostly in her eyes but those are rather elaborate. Huppert plays a character we’ve seen a million times in a film we’ve seen a million times but she managed to give Nathalie her own distinctive flavour. Unfortunately, this power doesn’t extend to the film as a whole.
Fuocoammare (Competition / Italy, France / Director: Gianfranco Rosi)
Lampedusa. The name of the Italian island is synonymous with the refugee crisis Europe has been facing for years. There is a constant stream of overloaded boats from Africa heading for its shores. But Lampedusa is also a rural, rough fisher island in the middle of the Mediterranean. Fuocommare is a serious of small episodes from everyday life. Not much happens: a boy shoots with his slingshot, is practising his lazy eye and trying to overcome his seasickness, a woman goes about her daily household work, a radio presenter is at his job, a diver is harvesting seafood, a doctor examines and talks about his job. Between these episode we see and hear the ever repeating refugee cycle: the SOS, the search, the rescue, the camp life. We see proud rescued refugees, dehydrated ones fighting for their lives, dead bodies. There is a cold efficiency to this but there are also faces, bodies, life. The cuts between the scenes are hard, the two worlds seemingly unrelated. But both share the same grey skies, the same calm still shots and the same desire: to live, to make something of that gift they never asked for. Fuocoammare is the essence of film making: it just shows, nothing more. And by doing this, through its documentary-style sobriety and it draws the viewer in, inevitably, inescapably. A deeply haunting film that can be wonderfully one moment and harrowing the next. Just as life. An early festival highlight.
Mahana (Out of Competition / New Zealand, Australia / Director: Lee Tamahori)
New Zealand in the 1960s: a successful Maori family is headed by a tyrannical grandfather who allows for no opposition whatsoever. This doesn’t sit well with his grandson Simeon who dares to think and speak for himself. Trouble ensues, family secrets are discovered, old wounds healed and a new generation takes over? Sounds stale and cheesy? Well, it is. Mahana is a more than conventional historical family drama with all the usual plot twists and set pieces, the grand wide angles and lush images in earthy colours, the slow, would-be majestic pace, the dramatic climaxes. The only thing that sets it apart is its embedding in the Maori culture. Or it would be if that card was played in any way. But alas, discrimination is only hinted add and culture only appears in a more than contrived final scene. So we’re left with young Akuhata Keefe who plays Simeon. An alert, wide-eyed, shy yet stubbornly assertive, sensitive and smart boy played in a realistic, subtle and completely convincing way. Simeon embodies the hope for a new time. As contrived and obvious the film is as real is this central character. That’s not much but at least some small relief.
Nunca vas a estar solo (Panorama / Chile / Director: Alex Anwandter)
Nothing moves. Santiago is grey, covered in fog, drenched in a cold, pale light. The camera is stationary. A paralyzed world. In it lives Juan, a middle-aged man, responsible, introverted, invisible. His 18-year-old son Pablo is the opposite: lively, outgoing, openly gay. When he appears, the world gains colour and begins to move. One day, Pablo is viciously attacked and falls into a coma and Juan wonders whether he ever knew his son, whether their worlds even shared a universe. Juan tries to do what he always does: be polite, play by the rules but it doesn’t get him anywhere. And so his unmovable face starts twitching, anger creeps in, desperate restlessness. The camera stays on him, charting the progress this face makes, how he differentiates from the mannequins he’s in charge of making. His own views of masculinity falter as he becomes his son’s father again. The paralyzed world is now his enemy, driving him to actions others might consider desperate. The film largely avoids the sentimental (apart from the slightly intrusive music) and it doesn’t spell everything out (although it might have done without some rather contrived side plots as if it needed job problems to drive Juan over the edge). It adopts a distanced, matter-of fact tome and lets the viewer figure things out just as Juan has to. There is no happy ending but a little more colour to this world. And isn’t this something?
Aquí no ha pasado nada (Forum / Chile, United States, France / Director: Alejandro Fernández Almendras)
Nothing has happened? As far as Vicente is concerned, that is true. Yet after a night of drinking and partying with two girls he met earlier that day on the beach and their friends a man is dead, hit by their car. And Vicente will soon find out what it means to be involved in something of this kind with the son of a rich and powerful senator. Agustín Silva plays Vicente as a big boy, naive, reckless, thoughtless, carefree, good-natured. Heavy drum beats and a harsh, loud stumping rhythm predict nothing good can come out of this. The handheld camera follows Vicente closely, stumbling with him through the night and the subsequent days. Vicente tries to continue his normal life, protests his innocence and doesn’t know that he has no chance. The text messages he receives and sends appear on the screen and become a powerful symbol: his focus is never entirely on the serious reality, it is easily distracted by fun and games. His naivety is moving and saddening. A long drive during which we only see his face marks the point of no return. It is followed by trial testimony played in short clips. By this time, the film’s dynamic rhythm has come to a standstill, still frames signalise that Vicente’s quest for justice is over. At the very end, normal life resumes, Vicente greets his nemesis friendly at a garden party in warm sunlight. The ending couldn’t be more chilling. Aquí no ha pasado nada is an intense exploration of power and its effect on the powerless, a tale of disillusionment and the everyday tragedy of an ordinary man that mirrors the ways of a country where the individual is only free if they don’t interfere with the system.
Nikdy nejsme sami (Forum / Czech Republic, France / Director: Petr Vaclav)
An unnamed town in the Czech Republic. We encounter: a hypochondriac, his frustrated wife, a paranoid militia type, the two men’s three sons, a pimp and his prostitute slash on-off girlfriend. The film portrays its characters satirically. They are ridiculous, escapist, refusing to deal with reality and entirely selfish. Grotesque over the top scenes follow each other as the Czech presence we see is a breeding ground for paranoia, indifference and hate. The outside, the abnormal is the enemy, whether in the form of imagined diseases or the usual scapegoats such as Jews or immigrants. We see a society that has turn on itself because it has forgotten its values. It doesn’t matter if the images mirror the past (black and white) or the present (colour), the reality is bleak and hopeless because the characters make it so. But then there are the three children: they mount their own rebellion against the adults, sometimes angry and aggressive, sometimes ingenious and playful. Ultimately, they, too, will pay a price but they pint the way: one of subversion and ridiculing the status quo. Nikdy nejsme sami is a bizarre and biting satire of a paralyzed society, sharp, piercing, hilariously funny and full of irony.
Hee (Forum / Japan / Director: Kaori Momoi)
A run-down Japanese woman meets a psychiatrist. Twice. The first time, she talks about the fire she set and which killed her family when she was a child, the second time, she is evaluated after being arrested for a crime that’s never completely disclosed. Kaori Momoi not only directs but also plays the elusive, provocative, traumatized and, well, seemingly quite insane woman. Her nuanced performance is quite impressive and holds the film together as who she is and what she’s done remains unclear until the very end. On the other hand her exulted passive aggressiveness has a rather annoying quality. Which is true for the film as well: its dissociation of sound and image, the fire imagery, the side plot of the quiet, submissive doctor scream arthouse but do not really keep the promise. The film is mostly effect and little substance. Possible just like its protagonist.