Berlinale 2019: Day 4

By Sascha Krieger

Mr. Jones (Competition / Poland, United Kingdom, Ukraine / Director: Agnieszka Holland)

Agnieszka Holland’s new film tells the real-life story of Gareth Jones, the Welsh journalist who made the famine in the Ukraine in then early 1930s public. Set first in sepia-tinted timber browns and later in the forbidding whiteness of the Ukrainian winter, the 140 minutes rush through the events like the train Jones travels to Ukraine in. The initially slow pace of the set-up transforms into a hectic rush with the final chapters added on as if time was running out and the script wasn’t finished. The viewer learns little of the man Jones, he remains as flat as all other characters, from the plain Asa Brooks (Vanessa Kirby) whose role Holland minimises to the boring villain that is Peter Sarsgaard’s Pulitzer Award winning Walter Duranty. While Jones appears as the hero persecuted and ridiculed by all sides, James Norton has little to do other than either to look shocked or passionately arguing his case. The film’s rhythm is off at all times, the plot patched together like an amateurish quilt. Holland makes up for it with fast-paced and hectic images shot with an hand-held camera, breathing down Norton’s neck when he encounters the deadly crisis and throws in double exposures and parallel images for dramatic effect. Adding an additional story frame of George Orwell writing Animal Farm, a work Jones‘ reports are said to have inspired, doesn’t help either. The result is a thriller that doesn’t thrill and a statement film that doesn’t make statements. In the end, this is a good old her story that forgot about adding a hero or a story.

Mid90s (Image: © 2018 Jayhawker Holdings)

Gospod postoi, imeto i’ e Petrunija (Competition / Macedonia, Belgium, Croatia, Slovenia, France / Director: Teona Strugar Mitevska)

„God exists, her name is Petrunya“. The title’s translation is the film’s programme. At its beginning, she’s a solitary figure in the middle of an empty parking lot, looking challengingly at the camera. With no job and an over-bearing mother, she jumps into a river to capture a cross in a religious ceremony, an act traditionally reserved for men. Persecuted, she stubbornly refuses to give in, encountering one misogynistic attack after the other. At the very end, she gives up the cross of her own free will, saying to the priest: „You need it. They need it. I don’t“. The film remains on Zorica Nusheva’s face for most of it, registering her growing courage and self-confidence, her fear, anger, stubborn resistance. Her face tells the story more than the rest of the film does. The men’s misogyny rage, the clichéd supportive female reporter, the equally obvious good cop who even seems to fall for her. The film is good when it lets Petrunya’s face to tell her story and less so when it resorts to tired old tropes and way too obvious clichés. Fortunately, director Teona Strugar Mitevska is as calmly persistent as her protagonist, giving her plenty of room to assert her presence in the middle of the frame which she holds and will not abandon. Others may need their traditions, she needs herself. A quiet story about female emancipation which is a little too conventional and too much in its comfort zone but much of it is made of by the title character and Zorica Nusheva’s performance.

Mid90s (Panorama / United States / Director: Jonah Hill)

Stevie is just hitting puberty, being bullied by his older brother and is looking for company beyond his loving but somewhat protective mother. He finds a group of skaters hanging out nearby and eventually joins them. Mid90s is a classic growing-up film picturing the first steps on the long path to adulthood. There’s skating and parties and drinking and drugs and initial forays into sexuality. Tine-worn stuff but first-time director Jonah Hill makes it feel fresh, as new as it feels ehen one is going through it. The brilliant cast is led by sensational Sunny Suljic who perfectly portraits the transformation of a wide-eyed child into the moody and rebellious teenager he will soon be. Set in the period exemplified in the title, the film is also a time travel. Shot in a 4:3 format and driven by a decidedly mid-90s soundtrack that is never obtrusive but always spot-on, the film captures both its time and the universal experience of becoming oneself. Its narrative and visual rhythm is that of its music and the raw independence of skating. The banal happens as naturally and by-the-way as the(almost) tragic. There is no traditional story arc, no moment of revelation or transformation, no katharsis. Just the everyday stuff that mskes you eho you are, the ordinary that changes everything. Despite a dialogue or two that is a little polished and mature for the characters, its rough lightness, the warm truthfulness and the abundance of life in these completely believable faces make this film stand out. In the most unobtrusive of ways.

Divino Amor (Panorama / Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Denmark, Norway, Sweden / Director: Gabriel Mascaro)

In the Brazil of 2027, Joana works at the registration office handling divorce filings. As a member of evangelical group Divino Amor, she and her husband Danilo help estranged couples to rekindle their love – in a spiritual as well as very physical way. But when their struggle to have a child takes an unexpected turn, the happy surface crumbles and a rather rigid morality and an efficient society which curtails freedom and privacy as the price for order and a general sense of collective contentment emerge. The film creates a subtle futuristic atmosphere with crisp, calm images, tightly controlled camera (and character) movements, clean cold colours (even the reds get pretty chilling after a while), esoteric music and a child narrator whose identity is only revealed at the end. The film’s tone is empathetic as well as mildly ironic, making the characters, especially Joana richer by creating a sense of distance. Between realistic domestic scenes and drive through churches, an individual quest for happiness unfolds quietly, slowly that clashes with the authorities that be before leading to an almost abstract ambivalent ending, somewhere in the middle of resignation and defeat on one, hope and optimism on the other side. A gentle dystopia that doubles as a not really nightmarish dream, a vision that will repel some but is worth following through to its end.

Monos (Panorama / Columbia, Argentina, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Uruguay, United States / Director: Alejandro Landes)

In Monos, a group of child and teenage soldiers of an unexplained rebel organisation guard an American hostage. After an ambush, they move her, setting off a series of events that change their community forever and put them against each other. The film’s stark imagery focuses on the physical, as bodies engage in strange rituals, violence, sex. Everything is physical in the bleak landscape that later gives way to an intractable jungle. Sounds are amplified, nature’s hostility enhanced by a dark artificial soundscape. Youthful playfulness soon gives way to a scenario reminiscent of „Lord of the Flies“. The density of the audiovisual narration with its strong colours and often symbolically enlarged imagery and sound conveys a sense of young people trapped in the mechanics of a violent and hostile world. While the development is logical it feels a little stale, being so inspired by Golding’s famed novel so much that it begins to lose its own feel and moves into copycat territory. Everything seems just a bit too much, too clear, too pronounced. The cast is strong, the characters well-sketched and outlining well how differently people react when asked to become inhumane. Unfortunately, the shadow of Golding proves too strong for Monos to really find its own way.

So Pretty (Forum / United States, France / Director: Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli)

So Pretty is a super-low-budget take on a Ronald M. Schernikau novel of an impossibly long title, claiming to be a film. So Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli made a film of it. In which the novel is discussed and repeatedly quoted, initially in German, later in English in a series of staged public (?) readings. In-between we see loosely connected scenes of a group of queer people in New York City going about their lives. They call themselves by the names of the book’s characters, thus overlaying the pseudo-naturalistic with a literary meta layer, trying to couple these present day New Yorkers with Schernikau’s heroes of a different time. What we see in uninspired brightly pale images, sugared with a thick layer of atmospheric sounds, raising the scenes above the realistic, is a dull merry-go-round of characters ending up in different constellations, saying deep stuff with gravelly monotonous vices. The film’s aim is to discover and expose the beauty in these lives, these bodies, these souls. Unfortunately, the effect is quite different. The visible construction of the film kills all emotional impact, makes images and performances stale and the ambitious clash with the banal. The documentary meets amateur theatre style does not open any lanes into a discussion of beauty in diversity and beyond the so-called „normal“, the beauty of ordinary lives lived by ordinary and at the same time extraordinary people. Instead, what we get, is a dreary effort that is all effort and nothing else.

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