Berlinale 2016: Day 9

By Sascha Krieger

El rey del Once (Panorama Special / Argentina / Director: Daniel Burman)

Ariel has left his past behind. He is the son of Usher, a key local figure in the Jewish Once district of Buenos Aires, a man who has made it his life to help people with whatever they need, to organise what is missing and to solve problems. Usher is a real person and is played in the film by himself. His son is a businessman living in New York who shares none of his father’s philanthropic spirit or sense of community and who claims not to believe. El rey del Once (an epithet given to Usher) charts a week on a visit to Buenos Aires. At the start, all Ariel wants is to meet his father and not meddle in his affairs, at the end he has turned into an expert organiser and problem solver himself and has even refamiliarized himself with religious life and rituals. There is great transformation, it just happens, naturally and unbeknownst to Ariel who also falls in love along the way. All of this was probably the plan of the elusive usher as his wry smile at the end indicates. El rey del Once is a fast-paced rollercoaster ride through the bustling microcosm of Jewish Buenos Aires. The handheld camera always stays close and creates a feel of immediacy giving especially the incredible Allan Sabbagh all the room he needs to move from whiny spoilt brat to tough and confident organiser. El rey del Once is a little miracle, a hilarious fast-talking comedy, an empathic but satirical portrait of a man who learns who he can be and a loving homage to a vibrant, multi-faceted, fast-paced and fast-talking and at times wonderfully absurd world. Daniel Burman’s lightest of touch makes this film as smart as it is funny and entertaining.

El rey del Once (© Berlinale)

El rey del Once (© Berlinale)

Ejhdeha Vared Mishavad! (Competition / Iran / Director: Mani Haghighi)

First of all: any attempt to summarize the content of Ejhdeha Vared Mishavad! would be futile and expand the space of this blog by far. The film plays on several time levels: there’s the investigation into a suspicious suicide in a ship left on a desert cemetary and the legend that every time a body gets buried there, an earthquake happens. Then there are interrogation scenes of the exploration team by police. Both take place in the 1960s. In the present, a film maker discovers material from the events and decides to make a documentary. While the past is filmed in glorious colours and wide sweeping angles, the present is done in a modern-day TV documentary esthetic with talking heads and the director appearing as himself. The past, we learn, is told in scenes recreated for the documentary with the interrogator plaining his 50 year younger self. Suffice to say, there are mysteries encountered and some uncovered, there is never quite explained political interest in a cover up. In a wild and increasingly absurd ride that combines the narrative styles of mystery adventure and documentary, uncovering means mostly that ever more mysteries are found. The viewer is occasionally overwhelmed by the complexity but also by the lifeless magnificence of the pale yellow desert scenery which looks like a postapocalyptic landscape. Maybe it is? After all, the villager do not seem to be from this world, dressing in what might be a traditional timeless way and performing strange rituals. As the ship is out of place in the middle of a desert, the whole island (only at the very end we even see the sea) seems to have fallen out of time. Ejhdeha Vared Mishavad! can be read as an allegory it most likely is about truth, its unknowability, its shifting nature depending on in which hand it resides. It might well be something else or many things at once. What it certainly is, is a fascinating, disturbing, nightmare-inducing surrealist ride (the music! the pounding rhythm!) that provides few answers but challenges the viewer to look, to listen (silence – perhaps the only real truth? – plays a key role), to move around. Whoever decided this should be the final Competition film art this year’s festival definitely has a fine sense of humour.

Zjednoczone stany miłości (Competition / Poland, Sweden / Director: Tomasz Wasilewski)

Ok, so we find ourselves in a world of emotional coldness. The colours are pale and reduced, in the opening seen so much so that the viewer initially thinks this was a black and white film before they notice some colors, for example in fruit and flowers on the table. This is the film’s only interesting feature and it is abandoned after that first scene. The Polish Competition entry tells the story of three and a half women, all looking for love: Example: Agata is unhappy in her marriage and gets obsessed with the handsome (!) priest. Her mode of existence is being cold to his husband and having the facial expression of a sulking child. Want more? Take Iza, Agata’s school headmistress sister. She lusts after the local doctor, turns into a stalker when she leaves him and has a perpetual stony-face. The acting is as subtle as a rock, the story-telling so bad it beggars belief. Plot points are straight from the middle-aged housewife TV movie playbook, but enacted in such would-be artificial holy earnestness, watching at times hurts almost physically. And let’s not talk the woman’s role as propagated here. This is not a train wreck of a film, this is the equivalent of a nuclear disaster. No redeeming features. None.


Toro (Perspective German Cinema / Germany / Director: Martin Hawie)

Piotr, who everyone calls Toro, and Victor are friends. Both work as prostitutes, Toro for women, Victor for men. When they’ve saved enough money they want to start a new life in Toro’s homeland Poland. Of course, the plan doesn’t work out as Victor’s drug habit gets into the way. What ensues is a botched mix of social drama, gangster thriller and road movie with even a bit of John Steinbeck thrown it. Think Of Mice and Men. Shot in stark black and white (was director Martin Hawie whose graduation film this is aiming at early Fassbinder here?), Toro screams art but never delivers. The plot points and story-lines seem taken from textbooks, you could easily use a check list for films of this kind and tick all boxes. There’s the juxtaposition of the tough physical and the vulnerable, sensitive guy, a triangle, a closet gay story, textbook villains, an outbreak of violence, etc. Whenm Toro experiences some overwehelming emotional crisis, the sound gets distorted, Victor’s drug episodes are marked bz slow motion. That kind of thing. The pieces rarely feel genuine and moreover, they are not connected well. Clichés abound in what is the usual „downward spiral that leads to an inevitable disaster“. We’ve seen all of this a thousand times, and better. Apart from committed performances, especially by Paul Wollin as the title character, Toro adds nothing to them.


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