Berlinale 2021: Reviews Part 4

By Sascha Krieger

Guzen to sozo (Competition / Japan / Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi)

Two women meet on an escalator. They seem to recogniz each other as old friends or more. Even after noticing their mistake, they decide to continue to play, each taking the part of the one the other mistook her for. It’s the third part of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s triptych about the what ifs of human relationships. And it#s a masterpiece in its light tone, it pale but bright and crisp images full of disappointment and hope, its exploration of what was and could have been as a gate towards moving on. It’s a masterpiece, too, in depecting women, the repressed feelings, lives as compromises, the strength of perseverence, the freedom an unexpected valve carries. All these are present in the other episodes, a love and friendship triangle with two alternative endings and a (rather weaker because of a more traditional stereotype of a woman coming to find herself through the tutoring of a man) failed and then ironically successful attempt at trapping a professor (with an ending that violates the rest of the film’s tone). Bound together by Robert Schumann’s piano music, these three miniatures composed of real-time scenes are glimpses into the eternal as well as very modern struggle to find a way in life and to other people that roles and expectations – society’s and those internalized – often handicap. The poetry of desire, emotion and self-determination and the ironic tragedy of the unknowable other creates a lightly treading, quietly intense gem that in the end, finds this elusive path in the irony of not recognizing who one thought one knew and getting to know if not them but at least oneself in the process. The viewer walks more lightly after the closing credits roll.

Guzen to sozo (Image: © Neopa/Fictive)

Ghasideyeh gave sefid (Competition / Iran, France / Directors: Behtash Sanaeeha, Maryam Moghaddam)

After her husband’s execution, Mina learns that he was innocent. She embarks aon a fight for justice while meeting a man who harbours a secret connected with the case. Ghasideyeh gave sefid is a classic tale of guilt and redemption although it isn’t. The Iranian system does not allow for the latter, stifling all attemts immediately. So the character drift along caught in a web of speecheless, ultimately ptted against each other, maipulated by a system not allowing for errors. A greyish tinge lies on the cold, immobile image. Feelings, when they appear, are half-hidden, joy hard fought for. While the story does not avoid cliché, it is told and enacted (mainly by first-time co-director Maryam Moghaddam) in a very subtle way, as low-key, as emotionally restricted as the world it pictures. The ending is open, two-fold, a new beginning or an end. nothing is certain except that honesty and truth can only thrive in private. Or in the gentle symbolism of the title-giving (English: Ballad of a White Cow) scenes. As Mina’s crusade is a quite and private act of resistance as is this humble film, telling its not entirely new story without any pretence. The truth lies in the faces, Moghaddam’s and Alireza Sanifar’s mostly. Where there’s guilt, there’s hope. Perhaps.

Rock Bottom Riser (Encounters / United States / Director: Fern Silva)

Fern Silva’s experimental film essay is an opulent collage centering in Hawaii, its Polynesian culture and its colonial history. Magnificently flows the lava down one of its many volcanoes, powerfully do the waves break on its beaches, times flows and ebbs like the movement of the stars, corresponding with the activites of the ancient gods. Nature, astronomy, history and ethnography intertwine in images of breathtaking beauty, erratic irritation, mysterious ambiguity. We hear about Hawaiian navigation, modern astronomy, the decoloization of science, cultural appropriation, an actor speaks about a journey of assimilation and loss of direction, the ambivalence of discovery and science clashes or is oliterated by the stoic perseverence of nature. Humanity is lost somewhere in-between, as history is rewritten, rediscovered, rectified. The film opens with an essay on ancient statues, but what we see are even older trees. Humanity is absent and present at the same time, rediscovered because it was lost. A cosmos of images, the viewer can explore in many ways, a web of countless pathways to follow. A love letter to an island, to earth, but also a warning. The giant telescopes on a holy mountain: are science and nature  enemies or partners? There are many open questions left. The way they are posed is a work of beauty, the fragility of which is ever-present.

Mantagheye payani (Encounters / Iran, Germany / Directors: Bardia Yadegari, Ehsan Mirhosseini)

A dystopian alternative-present Tehran has been emptied by an environmental catastrophy, a mysterious virus and emigration. Peyman, an out-of-work unpublished poet spends his days shooting heroin, conversing with his friends, drifting along, waiting for his wife to get him to the U.S. His poem describes the wanterings of a boy, his alter ego, in an unhabitable world, in the shadow of uncaring concrete gods, unhabited, unwelcoming. The poem and reality merge, his drug-induced hallucinations invade the present, dark rooms and cold, empty concrete deserts encapsulate a restless man losing his grip on reality, himself, the world. A dystopian nightmare Mantagheye payani offers no way out with his stark, opulent, eclectic imagery, its hard and fast edits, its combination of textbook drug film and naturalistic post-apocalypse, hovering somewhere in-between, not being one or the other. Peyman’s view of the world is too cynical, too unabashedly pessimistic to keep the viewer’s attention, his interactions with others too sketchy as well as too predictable. Found images create an illusion of a lost world, TV footage collages are dystopian set-pieced. While atmospherically dense, the film ultimately fails to be the indictment of a world neglecting everything that matters for money and power that it clearly desires to be. It’s a little too clichéd and heavy-handed to really engage on the philosophical level it ais at. As its protagonist’s manuscript, it is a little too pretentious and ambitious while not nearly daring enough to be a real success.

Ensilumi (Generation Kplus / Finland / Director: Hamy Ramezan)

What a contrast: the loving family home drenched in soft sunshine in the beginning and the cold faceless cell in the end. And what similarity: Both times the mother wakes up her husband and children, gently, one by one, in a never-changing ritual. Between the two scenes: a tender growing up, a ceaseless flow of lovejoy, worrying, fear. The loving family are Iranians, living in a Finnish refugee centre, hoping against hope they’ll be granted asylum. The threat is always pleasent: in half-hidden worrying looks, other children taen out of class by the police, a constant look above one’s shoulder. But among all this a quite normal life on the threshold between childhood and youth. The camera follows 13-year-old Ramin whose happy face can darken at a moment’s notice but who s determined to not be dominated by fear. He plays and wanders around with his best friend, starts a new school, desires a girl, has his first drop of alcohol. This is all embedded in a family not weighed down by the impending fear. Everyone’s friendly, supportive, yet helpless. The ending is as low-key as everything else, the end of hope just another chapter to be accepted. This is normalcy for those who are not welcome, stubborn, resilient, determined to live, resigned. A very ordinary story about people not allowed to be ordinary. This family will remain in the viewer’s memory, their laughter, their joy, their bond. ad this light, insight and out, warm until there’s no pretending. This is – in a Europe that has shut its doors – an everyday story after all.

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