After a few initial disappointments in Berlinale’s main competition, things gradually began to pick up; even the weather improved, or rather, it was less freezing. Apart from the sensuous Meteora, with its unique blend of fiction, documentary, and animation penetrating the heart of the Greek Orthodox church, many of the entries were beholden to seen-it-all-before narratives. No matter how well done on its own terms, Billy Bob Thornton’s Jayne Mansfield’s Car was content to follow the well-worn pattern of the dysfunctional-family drama, though it was experimental compared to Hans-Christian Schmid’s Home for The Weekend, an extremely familiar exploration of middle-class angst. The key sequences take place during a gathering at Christmas—don’t all these family melodramas take place at Christmas?—when the mother tells her publisher husband, and her two sons, one a dentist, the other a divorced writer, that she’s decided to stop taking her anti-depression pills. A short while later she disappears, and a search for her is carried out, faintly reminiscent of the futile searches in L’Avventura or About Elly. But there the comparison ends. I found it insupportable.
Bence Fliegauf’s Just the Wind also concentrated on a family, that of a Romany one in Hungary: a hard-working, exploited mother; an incapacitated grandfather; a dreamy, unhappy teenage daughter; and a younger son, who has taken to stealing. Hovering over this intense, doom-laden drama is the real event of a series of racist murders of gypsies in Hungary a few years ago. The roaming camera follows the family doggedly, their every move in close-up as they wait for the inevitable; the title is the reassuring phrase offered during the night as the family huddles in fear. Fliegauf’s penetration of a harsh, prejudiced, and deprived society offers a profound message without any didacticism or special pleading.
Wang Quan’an’s White Deer Plain uses the plight of two families to represent the Chinese people from the end of the imperial era in 1912, through civil war, famine, the Japanese invasion, to the final victory of the Maoists. Though on a wider scale than Wang’s previous Berlinale successes, Tuya’s Marriage and Apart Together, it’s surprisingly intimate for those who expected just another historical epic. Wang keeps the seismic events in the background, his interest lying in the way the characters evolve as regimes come and go. Like Wang’s previous work, the film revolves around a woman, this time a young courtesan, who leaves a life of luxury to live with a poor man, all out of love.
Although three hours long, the story is engrossing enough for most of the time. Based on a novel that was banned for several years in China because of its explicit sex scenes, the film is astonishingly carnal and scatological, even by Western standards. At one point, an elderly man who wants to have his way with the heroine keeps saying that he’d rather drink her piss than water. However, when she urinates on him, he’s furious. “I only meant it as a metaphor,” he shrieks.
The metaphor of the similarity between humans and caged animals is rather heavy-handed in Postcards from the Zoo by the Chinese-Indonesian director known by the mono-cognomen of Edwin. (The point was made most memorably in Bert Haanstra’s 1962 short Zoo, which showed humans from the animals’ point of view.) Nevertheless, Edwin’s film is less cryptic than his first feature, 2008’s Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly, and far more poetic. The film is constructed by a succession of vignettes, all happening in the Jakarta zoo, which seems the most fascinating of places. Actually, I would have been happy with only the documentary side of the film. But then we would have been deprived of strange diversions such as a cowboy magician with his “Red Indian” girl assistant. The latter, who narrates most of the film, supplies interesting statistics about the animals (her ambition is to touch the belly of a giraffe) and not only works in the zoo, but also as a masseuse. Not as whimsical as it sounds, Postcards from the Zoo, like most of the best films in the competition, confronts the nature of narrative in a fresh and original way.
This was evident in the meta-narrative of Miguel Gomes’s Tabu, the best film I saw in the competition. The Portuguese Gomes, fulfilling the promise of Our Beloved Month of August, follows in the fabulist tradition of his countryman Manoel de Oliveira, as well as directors such as Raúl Ruiz, while paying homage to silent cinema. The title and some of the style evokes Murnau’s last movie, even down to the use of the intertitles “Paradise” and “Paradise Lost,” though this Tabu isn’t set in the South Seas, but mainly in Portuguese colonial Africa.
The prologue takes place in a Portuguese colony, shot in monochrome as a documentary of the 1920s, which tells of a morose explorer who’s swallowed by a crocodile. The film then moves to modern-day Lisbon, where an elderly woman and her devoted black servant live. Gradually, a link to the prologue is made and the film shifts seamlessly in and out of Africa and the past. What emerges is a doomed love affair between a colonist’s wife and a writer (the narrator of the film), played as a silent-movie except for the narration. (Inevitable comparisons will be made to The Artist, but any resemblance to that wildly over-praised commercial film is a superficial one.)
Obviously, as most critics are bound to do, I was obliged to report on the world-premiere films in competition, and it would have been a dereliction of my duty to do otherwise. However, there were temptations elsewhere, besides the various alcohol-laced receptions and a meal following the screening of Daniel Cohen’s amusing culinary-themed comedy Comme un Chef. Among the many riches of world cinema on display, there was an excellently researched retrospective of early Soviet cinema called The Red Dream Factory, two rare examples of which I managed to see. Edwin Piscator’s 1934 agit-prop drama Revolt of the Fishermen, in a silent version, with newly-discovered music by Hans Eisler, played as piano accompaniment, and Lev Kuleshov’s long unseen Horizon from 1932, introduced by the director’s granddaughter, which tells of a Jewish Russian who satisfies his dream of going to New York where “a Jew can become a policeman.” Naturally, he’s disappointed by the city, a strangely stylized version, where everybody, including the brutal cops, speaks Russian. Taking a cue from Kuleshov’s The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, Horizon could have been called The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. Russia in the Land of the Capitalists.
Berlinale runs from February 9—19.