Art house galore
Writing from Berlin, Samir Farid reviews two of the Berlinale's more striking features
The 62nd round of the Berlinale (9-19 Feb) opened last week a year before the end of the contract of its current director, Dieter Kosslick, whose contract has been renewed for a further four years despite the criticism he has faced since taking charge 12 years ago. He is taken issue with for not paying sufficient attention to Hollywood and not including as many great master directors of the world in his programmes as Cannes or Venice. For his part Kosslick seems to feel it is important to pay equal attention to cinema from all over the world and to new and especially young directors.
One sign of this interest is the young artist workshops he has established, which is in its tenth round this year; another is the world cinema fund which supports production especially from Latin America, Asia and Africa. This year a Berlinale House was opened west of the city and a Berlin residency programme involving six directors who have received funds from the festivals finishing their projects there in the spring. The debate about Hollywood found expression in the press conference with the jury, prior to the opening, when the jury head Mike Leigh said that, while Hollywood is deteriorating, the same is not true of independent American and European film - a claim it is hard to support.
In his introduction to the programme, Kosslick said this year's round pays particular attention to Africa, "cinema's forgotten continent", as he put it, featuring - among other films - War Witch by Kim Nguyen and Tabu by Miguel Gomes. He also celebrated a year since the Egyptian people forced the dictator Hosni Mubarak to step down, making references to the ongoing daily killing of Syrians. The Arab Spring is not simply a possible documentary subject but also an important pivot for Berlinale activities.
Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's docudrama Caesar Must Die, which won the Golden Bear, is their 19th film since 1962 (Paolo and Vittorio were born 1931 and 1929, respectively). Many of the brothers' films are based on literary classics like Goethe, Pirandello and Tolstoy. This is their first venture into Shakespeare with an adaptation of Julius Caesar, but never before has Shakespeare been shown in quite that way with the inmates of the high-security Rebibbia Jail outside Rome. The only actors who were not actually serving sentences are the former inmate Salvatore Striano, who on his release in 2006 had embarked on a professional acting career and returned to jail simply to play Bruto -- he produced such a stunning performance he may indeed deserve the Best Actor Award -- as well as the theatre director Fabio Cavalli (who helped write the script) playing the theatre director of the inmates' production, and the acting coach Maurilio Giaffreda as Octavio.
The film starts in colour, showing the cast staging the end of Julius Caesar in jail. The audience applauds, the auditorium is empty -- each return to his cell. A sign says "Six months before", and the picture becomes black and white with the director casting for Julius Caesar by asking each prospective actor to cite his date and place of birth, once in a low, then in a loud voice. Each time an actor starts performing, subtitles appear stating his crime and sentence. Most are hardened criminals related to the mafia, and many are serving life sentences. While each inmate memorises his role, practising with the others, their dialogue and that of Shakespeare begin to meld into each other. They start calling each other by the names of their characters, and their lives -- indeed their way of thinking -- begins to alter as they increasingly embody the words of the Bard, especially when speaking of freedom.
The choice of play is not only appropriate because it is set in Rome; the play's themes also connect with the inmates lives: power and corruption, loyalty and betrayal, honour and disgrace. It seems to say as much about the historical figures it portrays as it does about the inmate-actors' lives. In the middle of this extremely well-paced and concise 76-min production (without a single second too many or two few), the viewer sees the jail for the first time in general views from outside. A single scene in colour expresses the change in the inmates' attitude when one of them looks at the poster of an island in the middle of the sea that he must've seen many times before but never paid attention to -- and the poster changes from black and white to colour. On the death of Caeser and during Antonio's famous monologue, the prison guards are watching through the railings, laughing at the actors. At the end colour comes back, with a repeat of the opening scene. But the last scene shows Cosimo Rega, who plays Cassius, in his sell saying that, since he found out about art, this cell turned into a prison.
The Greek filmmaker Spiros Stathopoulos's Meteora, a German production, is an equally engaging cinematic gem. Born in Greece in 1977, Stathopoulos made his first full-length feature in Columbia, where he grew up: PVC-1, a Columbian production which recounts in real time the story of a woman turned into a human time-bomb, was screened in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes in 2007. Meteora, Stathopoulos's second feature, is an altogether different experience in which the director returns to his Greek roots, demonstrating that what courses through his veins is Greek blood. Though a German production, the film is wholly Greek in terms of cultural identity. Unlike PVC-1, it is also a classical film in the strict dramatic sense of the term -- so much so that it observes the three Aristotelian unities, relying on classic geometric relations and natural light.
The film is set in a unique part of the world in the middle of the Greek mainland, where a monastery and a convent were built opposite each other on the summits of two mountains opposite each other, separated by a third, smaller mountain -- a UNESCO world heritage site. Meteora is the name of this spot, but it is unknown whether it already had that name when the monastery and the convent were built. The word indicates something suspended, pointing to the fact that the two buildings hang between heaven and earth. The action unfolds at present, however: something that is clear from one of the peasants in the village below the mountains wearing jeans. Yet it might as well be any time at all, even the time of Adam and Eve. As for the subject, which is organically connected with suspension and absolute time -- it is the eternal human conflict between the body and the spirit, the material and the incorporeal, instinct and the religious repression of it. In a sense it too is a classical subject, with the film doubling as a monograph on passion and duty.
Stathopoulos, who shot the film as well as directing it and cowrote it with Asimakis Alfa Pagidas, expresses those ideas through a love story between a monk and a nun, plated by Theo Alexander and Tamila Koulieva-Karantinaki respectively, which perpetuates a violent conflict within each of them and ends with them making the decision to renounce monasticism and return to life in order to be together. This may prompt some to ask what might be new or interesting in such a story or its treatment. What is new is not so much the topic or how it is tackled but the viewpoint and the style of its expression, the acting and the visual art involved. Stathopoulos's achievement is in the airtight structure in an 80-min film built almost as a symphonic work.
The film opens with a shot of the three icons at the centre of both monastery and convent, with a distinctive tapping on wood -- the way the establishment announces things. Then an animation scene introduces the building, eventually shifting to a view of it in reality. The monk and nun are together in the valley, then they separate -- each ascending to the cluster they belong to, she through a web of white boulders, he up long steps. Once again the scene turns into animation, and then the titles roll. This is indeed the key to the whole story, which puts forward a world that separates between men and women the way it separates between heaven and earth or rather the mountain and the valley. The combination of animation and acting carries through to the end of the film. Though it received no awards, to my mind this is one of the best films ever to combine these two modes of expression.
Prizes of the International Jury 2012
The members of the 2012 International Jury, Mike Leigh (President), Anton Corbijn, Asghar Farhadi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jake Gyllenhaal, François Ozon, Boualem Sansal and Barbara Sukowa, award the following prizes:
Golden Bear for Best Film
Producer Grazia Volpi with the directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani
Cesare deve morire ( Caesar Must Die )? by Paolo & Vittorio Taviani
The Jury Grand Prix - Silver Bear
Director Bence Fliegauf
Csak a szél ( Just The Wind )? by Bence Fliegauf
Silver Bear - Best Director
Christian Petzold for? Barbara
Silver Bear - Best Actress
Rachel Mwanza in? Rebelle ( War Witch ) by Kim Nguyen
Silver Bear - Best Actor
Mikkel Boe F÷lsgaard
Mikkel Boe F÷lsgaard in ? En Kongelig Affõre ( A Royal Affair ) by Nikolaj Arcel
Silver Bear - Outstanding Artistic Achievement
Producer Zhang Xiaoke and Lutz Reitemeier's partner Anne Fleck accepted the prize on his behalf
Lutz Reitemeier for the photography in? Bai lu yuan ( White Deer Plain ) by Wang Quan'an
Silver Bear - Best Script
Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg
Nikolaj Arcel, Rasmus Heisterberg for? En Kongelig Affõre ( A Royal Affair ) by Nikolaj Arcel
Alfred Bauer Prize
awarded in memory of the festival founder, for a work of particular innovation
Tabu ?by Miguel Gomes
Special Award - Silver Bear
L'enfant d'en haut ( Sister ) ?by Ursula Meier
ïThe Berlinale Shorts International Jury consists of three filmmakers and artists with a working relationship to the short form. At home in multiple artistic and cultural fields, they each bring with them their own perspective on the way they view and evaluate the competing films: talented international directors, young artists and actors as well as short film curators and film academy directors award works that tread new cinematographic territory.
The members of the 2012 Berlinale Shorts International Jury, Sandra Hèller, Emily Jacir and David OReilly, award the following prizes:
Golden Bear for the Best Short Film 2012
Rafa ?by Jo‹o Salaviza
This stunningly performed and sensitively paced film is a beautifully bleak, uncompromising portrayal of a boy on the brink of manhood. Using minimal means the director carefully choreographs this brave unsentimental story.
Jury Prize (Silver Bear) 2012
Gurehto Rabitto ( The Great Rabbit )?by Atsushi Wada
This dreamlike film uses a unique, surreal language to tickle our unconscious while showing us the confusion of the modern world in animated form. Using a delicate hand drawn style, Atsushi Wada decodes reality with absurd sequences of characters caught in time.
?Special Mention:? Licuri Surf by Guile Martins
DAAD Short Film Prize 2012
The Man that Got Away ?by Trevor Anderson
This eccentric film employs outstanding music and choreography to create a hilarious, personal narrative full of emotion.
Berlin Short Film Nominee for the European Film Awards 2012
© Ecce Films 2
Vilaine Fille Mauvais Garçon ( Two Ships )?by Justine Triet
An attempt to tell the story of two solitary figures trying to find a moment of lightness amidst the constantly interrupting weight of reality around them. Using documentary-like techniques the director brings us so close to the characters that we believe they are real.