Daily | Berlinale 2015 Diary #8

Taraneh Alidoosti in 'Atom Heart Mother'

Taraneh Alidoosti in ‘Atom Heart Mother’

The Berlinale’s Forum does a fine thing each year, screening several of its selections one more time during the week after the festival’s wrapped. I managed to catch a few, and now that the week of encores has come and gone, I’m left with no more excuses for putting off a final wrap-up of Berlinale 2015. So first, rankings. Links will take you back to my frenzied initial impressions, which, as always, I’ve left as-is, followed by the “What Others Are Saying” sections, most of which have since been updated. For more rankings from nearly 20 critics, see the grid presented by and Perlentaucher—and Lukas Foerster‘s mightily impressive list.

All in all, far fewer films than last year (a ferocious bout of the flu kept me away from the Forum and Panorama previews in January), but the like-to-dislike ratio is a whole lot rosier. I haven’t been alone in remarking that the Competition in 2015 was stronger than it has been in years, even factoring in the disappointments from the esteemed veterans (mileage varies, of course, on the latest from Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, though most agree that it was fortunate that the new Wim Wenders screened out of competition). And, as you can see, I couldn’t be happier with the decision of Darren Aronofsky and his jury to award the Golden Bear to Taxi.

With Atom Heart Mother, it’s back to the streets of Tehran, but instead of spending a busy afternoon with Jafar Panahi, we roam the often deserted streets at night with Arineh, a sharp young Muslim woman played by the charming Taraneh Alidoosti, and her Christian friend, Nobahar, played by Pegah Ahangarani, the actress and filmmaker who was arrested in the wake of the tumultuous 2009 presidential election in Iran and then again in 2011. Taking this role in Atom Heart Mother—the title’s taken from the 1970 Pink Floyd album and nods, as do a few lines in the film, to Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions—is not going to make Ahangarani’s relations with Iranian authorities any easier. In a Q&A following one of the screenings during the festival, director Ali Ahmadzadeh noted that, even though his film’s been rejected by the Fajr International Film Festival, he hopes to see it screen some day in his country. I’d be surprised if he truly believes that’s actually going to happen.

We first meet Arineh and Nobahar coming from a party, not exactly sloshed but a little more than tipsy. Once they eventually find their car and head out on the road, they run across their friend Kami (Mehrdad Sedighiyan) who jumps in the back and on they roll. Conversation is light and goofy, often pretty funny, and most Western viewers are going to find these breezy scenes refreshing, maybe even surprising in light of the sort of films from Iran that usually make it out onto the international festival circuit. The comedy crescendos, oddly enough, when they’re stopped by the police. A cop spots a stash of pirated DVDs and, rather than reprimand the threesome for carrying a copy of Ben Affleck’s Argo, asks them how to argue that the Oscar winner is an insult to Iran. And the topper is a sing-along, to “We Are the World,” no less. Arineh, Nobahar and Kami approach the tune as most of us do, intending to mock it and then getting carried away with our own singular impressions of each of the pop stars spotlighted from one line to the next.

It’s all good fun until the tone begins to shift following an accident and the arrival of Toofan (Mohammad Reza Golzar). He presents himself as a savior, paying for the damage, but gradually reveals himself to be a demon, demanding (non-monetary) reimbursement and rides to meetings with shady characters and then blathering on about another world in another dimension accessible only via death in this one. We’ll never know if anyone gets there because a sudden hard cut to black brings the nightmare to an abrupt end. Ahmadzadeh has said he’s intentionally divided his film into two parts, real and surreal, but the shift entails losing everything that Atom Heart Mother had going for it in its first half. Frustrating.

What others are saying. For Conor Bateman at 4:3, “the way in which characters develop in the final third renders it a wholly disappointing conclusion to what was shaping up to be a compelling piece of social commentary from independent Iranian cinema.”

Cards on the table. I’m no fan of Alex Ross Perry‘s The Color Wheel and, while Queen of Earth hasn’t fully won me over, it’s spiked my anticipation for the day I finally catch up with Listen Up Philip. I’m convinced that the sensibility behind the two Perry films I have seen and the story, cast and milieu of Philip are a perfect match. But the dissolution of the tight friendship between Catherine (Elizabeth Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston) in tandem with Catherine’s gradual loss of her grip on reality calls for a nuanced understanding of basic human psychology that I simply find lacking in Queen of Earth.

It’s looks great, of course, shot, as all of Perry’s films have been, by Sean Price Williams. The Bergman of the 70s (mostly), Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and maybe, as some reviewers have mentioned, a smidgeon of Polanski come to mind. It’s not just the palette and texture; in one long shot in particular, Perry frames the two women as each recalls a distant chapter from her past, first one, then the other, in a manner that overtly evokes Persona (1966). There’s a 70s-ish jolt to some of the cuts as well, which has to be intentional on the part of editor Robert Greene.

Moss and Waterston are both marvelous and Patrick Fugit is appropriately irritating as Virginia’s boyfriend, Rich, picking at every potential rift between the two friends until it inflames, and while motivations are duly established—the recent loss of her father and boyfriend (Kentucker Audley) all but simultaneously is sending Catherine over the edge, while Virginia uses Rich to take revenge on Catherine for allowing her own boyfriend to interfere with their summer idyll the previous year—all the beautiful little pieces don’t add up to a coherent whole. Moods shift too erratically and even the logistics of who’s where when and what Catherine or Virginia would know about what the other’s up to in the house or by the lake seem muddled.

What others are saying. I’m practically alone on this one. Queen of Earth has a current Critics Round Up rating of 80/100, and James Kang has collected raves from Daniel Kasman, Michael Pattison, Scott Foundas and others. I’ll add links to a few more: Giovanni Marchini Camia (Film Stage, A), Andrew J. Simpson (Movie Mezzanine), Neil Young (Indiewire, B) and Stephanie Zacharek (Voice). And Jessica Kiang interviews Perry for the Playlist. Update, 3/3: Adam Cook talks with Perry for the Notebook.

In 1992, when Vladimir Tomic was around 12, he, his mother and older brother fled the war in Bosnia and joined a group of refugees taking shelter in a makeshift multi-story platform floating in the port of Copenhagen: Flotel Europa. Because the phone lines were unreliable, the refugees began recording VHS messages they’d mail to their families back home. When he rediscovered the video message you see excerpted in the clip above, he began asking around for more VHS material from other refugees and was surprised to wind up with hundreds of hours of video: letters, diaries, footage from parties, singing and dancing, cooking, card games, general lolling about, sheer boredom and, eventually, meetings in which the language of formal letters of protest over the miserable conditions of place would be hammered out.

Tomic spent a month with editor Srdjan Keča (A Letter to My Dad) whittling it all down to a nifty little 70-minute personal essay. As with Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Second Game, which screened in the Forum last year, the analog glitches of the low resolution video immediately conjure a late 20th century world, transporting the viewer back through a relatively narrow window in the development of audiovisual technology to a very specific moment when magnetic tape in plastic encasings—you can just smell them—held entire record collections and years of Kodak moments.

Parallel to the rising dissatisfaction of the refugees with their lot is Tomic’s tale of a crush he never had the guts to act on, despite turning for encouragement to his memories of the story of the young Yugoslavian hero Boško Buha, as told in 1978 film he watched over and again as a child (key scenes drop in throughout Flotel Europa). In his voiceover narration, Tomic tells us that he and his friends were bored out of their skulls (some would turn to drugs and not all of them would survive), but what sticks with you is the barely disguised anguish and worry on the faces of the adults as the days drag on. This is a small work, but Tomic has achieved what he set out to do: “While making Flotel Europa, I was able to look at my life from a distance. Seeing it as it is with all its ruthless beauty made me laugh and cry at the same time, and I would like the viewer to feel the same way.”

What others are saying. For Vladan Petkovic, writing for Cineuropa, Flotel Europa is “an engaging and emotional documentary that still poses many questions with respect to its form and content, thus questioning the very borders of the genre.”

A first superficial glance at The Lies of the Victors might suggest that Christoph Hochhäusler is making a bid to direct an episode of Tatort, Germany’s wildly popular Sunday evening television crime series. It’s not at all a bad gig, and he’d be joining an esteemed company of former directors that includes Samuel Fuller, Dominik Graf, Margarethe von Trotta, Wolfgang Petersen, Wolfgang Staudte and Michael Verhoeven. But scratch the surface and Victors reveals fascinating deviations from the formula.

Fabian Groys (Florian David Fitz), a star reporter for Die Woche, a weekly newsmagazine unabashedly modeled on Der Spiegel, and his intern, Nadja (Lilith Stangenberg), investigate a toxic waste recycling company on the eve of a parliamentary vote on new regulations that could have a major effect on the company’s bottom line. Naturally, as they interview those who have known or loved victims of the company’s negligence, pour through records and track down stashed away documents, our reporters discover that the company and its owners are up to no good.

But Hochhäusler and his co-writer Ulrich Peltzer redraw the standard conspiracy thriller blueprint. With the exception of a single crucial meeting with a parliamentarian, the state is all but absent in this standoff whose outcome is clearly going to have a tremendous impact the health of German citizens. The televised parliamentary debate is background wallpaper while the real players scuttle among the shadows. No badges are flashed, there are no guns, no arrests. Victors is a reminder that democracies are dysfunctional at best without a robust press and yet, as the editor of Die Woche notes, the magazine’s heyday lies in the distant past. Resources are thin and growing thinner.

Most crucially, Hochhäusler keeps Victors honest. Berlin, even as marvelously shot as it is by cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider, looks like Berlin, neither a romanticized metropolis nor a noirish underworld. The pace is quick but decisive moments aren’t unrealistically bled for the sake of suspense. What’s more, as the title suggests, the story goes where it most likely would in reality, all but guaranteeing that, when Victors is eventually broadcast on German television, it won’t be on a Sunday evening at 8:15.

Victors screened as part of the program of the inaugural edition of Critics’ Week, and I do wish I’d been able to attend more than one of its seven events (our own Kevin B. Lee presented his Transformers: The Premake as part of the opening night program). Victors was preceded by Jan Bachmann’s 25-minute short film, You would have to be a robber or at least a demolitions expert, an at first quite funny and ultimately rather puzzling indictment of hypercapitalism. The screenings were followed by a discussion with Hochhäusler, Bachmann and filmmakers Barbara Albert and Florian Hoffmann, moderated by critics Frédéric Jaeger, whose team pulled off the unbelievable feat of launching Critics’ Week within a period of just a few months (for more on this, see, most recently, Dennis Vetter at Festivalists), and Rüdiger Suchsland. These multi-pronged programs make for some pretty long evenings, which is great and all, but during the Berlinale, it can be difficult to find a way to clear such a substantial block in the daily schedule. Even so, by all accounts, the first edition has been a resounding success and, on the night I attended, the theater was packed.

What others are saying. When The Lies of the Victors premiered in Rome in October, I gathered a first round of reviews.

Back to the festival proper. I managed to catch two more Competition entries, neither of which demand dwelling on for too long. Laura Bispuri’s Sworn Virgin stands out for its casting and its almost ethnographic recording of Albanian traditions which evidently persist in high mountain villages. Alba Rohrwacher is first seen as Mark, a young man who’s quite clearly a woman. Through flashbacks it takes a while to get around to, we learn that she was once Hana, a girl who lost her parents and was taken in by a family whose daughter, Lila (Flonja Kodheli), becomes as close as a sister. Neither Hana nor Lila aspires to the servitude required of housewives. Lila runs off with her lover; Hana stays behind to become a son for her adopted parents in accordance with Albanian law. Now he can carry a gun and a dagger and hunt and drink with the guys, but he must also remain celibate for the rest of his life.

Once both adopted parents have passed away, Mark tracks down Lila and her family in Italy and contemporary civilization begins whispering its siren call—not to mention sexual curiosity and desire. In one of the strangest—not wrong or off, just strange—casting decisions I’ve seen in a while, Lars Eidinger, known to international cinephiles for his roles in Maren Ade‘s Everyone Else and Olivier Assayas‘s Clouds of Sils Maria and a superstar of German theater, plays a lifeguard at a public pool who doesn’t say much but happens to be the right guy at the right time to administer a sad and crude sexual initiation. Otherwise, Hana, having reclaimed her initial gender and now set up with a job and apartment, is on her merry way.

What others are saying. “That narrative arc could leave Virgin vulnerable to accusations of cultural conservatism, but the potential for ensuing debate works to its advantage,” finds Guy Lodge in Variety. “Taking on yet another role that prompts nudging comparisons to Tilda Swinton—cinema’s reigning queen of alternative identities, and Rohrwacher’s I Am Love mother—the actress deftly assists the film’s ambiguities, carefully playing Hana/Mike as a person who never seems quite comfortable in either skin. If she scarcely looks more manly in her bowl cut and denim jacket than Barbra Streisand did in Yentl, that’s surely the point; her inflections of swagger, even as she embarks on a return to womanhood, are affecting for appearing so studied.”

More from Jessica Kiang (Playlist, B+), Fabien Lemercier (Cineuropa) and Deborah Young (Hollywood Reporter).

The short clip above (0’47”) from Chasuke’s Journey offers the best Sabu has to offer in his latest film, the establishing idea. Screenwriters somewhere up there are steering the lives of those of us down here on Earth. Turns out, these screenwriters are as human as you and me. Some steal ideas from movies, others fall for their characters, and still others, out of petty jealousy or spite, send their own characters to off other screenwriters’ characters. Yuri (Ito Ono), beautiful, young and mute, is such a victim but the writer behind her won’t have it and sends heaven’s tea-server, Chasuke (Kenichi Matsuyama), down to save her. It’s all rather light and airy, playing like a live adaptation of an anime series based on a manga that might have been popular a decade or two ago.

What others are saying. “Sabu is in his most fun-loving element, stirring Okinawa’s magical folk art into a Capraesque yarn that flirts with ideas of fate and self-determination, but really just revels in a rich tapestry of human experience,” finds Maggie Lee in Variety. For Screen‘s Dan Fainaru, it’s “frenetic and colorful but not always adding up to anything more than an exotic, fast-paced stroll through present-day Okinawa… Too much local colour and excessive self-indulgence doesn’t help much either.”

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