The 68th edition of the Berlin International Film Festival – or ‘Berlinale’ – provided a typically generous spread of cinematic delights, a selection of which our critic got to sample during his week-long stay at the freezing but glittering city.
The Berlin International Film Festival is a key reference point for filmmakers and cineastes worldwide. While in some ways it’s one among the clutch of renowned film festivals out there, anecdotally speaking, it enjoys a more powerful cultural clout than, say, the Venice Film Festival – which has glitz and the air of prestige but doesn’t quite enjoy the same urgency and relevance. And while Cannes is still seen as “the place to be” for European premieres – in the popular imagination, it’s the closest Europe gets to Hollywood – the glamour of the Croisette promenade often overshadows serious discussions on the state of cinema and the particularities of the films being shown.
In contrast, Berlin tends to offer a more expansive, democratic and varied take on the festival experience. Not only is it a highly anticipated event for the industry – owing in no small part to its impressive pedigree, dating its inaugural edition back to 1951 – it also boasts an impressive concentration of both the most prestigious and the most up-and-coming.
In such a wonderful but hectic environment, it comes as no surprise that a whirlwind skim of the programme surface was the best I could manage as I descended upon the city. But even this was enough to convince me that, now in its 68th edition, the festival continues to be a veritable ‘green lung’ for world cinema, offering truly diverse and international experiences for cinemagoers of all stripes.
ISLE OF DOGS (DIR. WES ANDERSON)
The fey, symmetry-obsessed American director Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Rushmore), returns to the world of puppet-based stopmotion animation for the first time since Fantastic Mr Fox (2009), for this cheeky and endearing satirical fable, which opened the Berlinale on the night of 15th February 2018. Actually closer in tone, ambition and approach to The Grand Budapest Hotel than to the localised domestic dramedy that was Fantastic Mr Fox, Anderson’s ninth feature is a glorious expose of the director’s trademark visual wit, as bolstered by a Japanese aesthetic that helps tell the timeless story of a boy and his dog, with a whimsical-dystopian twist the challenges the tonal balances of which only the likes of Anderson can pull off.
Just like ‘Budapest’ snuck in themes of between-the-wars migration as part of its rollicking farce, so this sweet fable comes with a bitter aftertaste; a reminder of how the powers-that-be all too easily marginalise those who are inconvenient, with wrenching and devastating results.
A brave opener for the Berlinale, Isle of Dogs may appear to be little more than a confection, but its hidden depths are worth savouring as much as its many visual wonders.
BLACK 47 (DIR. LANCE DAILY)
In what is likely to be one of the most explosive breakout films to emerge from this year’s Berlinale, Lance Daily’s Black 47, recounts the most harrowing year of the Irish potato famine through the lens of a revenge western, creating a folk hero from scratch along the way. In its tale of a beleaguered Irish soldier who returns home after fighting for the crown only to find his entire family in tatters due to the natural devastation of crop failure and the decidedly unnatural callousness of the ruling British aristocracy, Daily has given us something akin to an Irish Django Unchained.
Because, despite the conflicted Hannah (Hugo Weaving) being on his trail, the ruined Feeney (James Frecheville), fresh out of things to lose, goes on the warpath.
Ahead of screening, all we had to go on was an image of Frecheville’s dour, bearded mug, and the shameful historical context that forms the background of Black 47’s story. But what we got was a grisly, though thoroughly satisfying, revenge thriller, paced to perfection and packed with great performances. This is a cult hit waiting to happen, and one imagines that viewers in Ireland – and their various expat compatriots spread out across the diaspora, no doubt at least partly as a result of the same harsh historical epoch – will give it an enthusiastic reception upon general release.
DAMSEL (DIR. NATHAN AND DAVID ZELLNER)
Another film to draw on the aesthetics of the Western, only to pull things in an entirely different direction, is Damsel, Nathan and David Zellner’s unpredictable romantic odyssey starring Robert Pattinson as Samuel Alabaster, an affluent pioneer traversing the Old West in a journey to both rescue and marry his sweetheart, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). He strings along ‘Parson Henry’ (David Zellner) for the ride, but it quickly becomes apparent that both men have been liberal with the truth since the beginning.
Walking along similar thematic lines as their previous feature – the absurdist fable Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014) – the Zellner brothers once again invite us to follow protagonists whose trustworthiness and intelligence is never quite a sure thing. This makes for a wacky experience through and through, though some of the twists give way to very current discussions around gender politics, with Wasikowska delivering among her most assured and fiercest performances to date (and there have been a few of those already).
HIGH FANTASY (DIR. JENNA BASS)
Sliding comfortably into the ‘Generation’ section of the Berlinale programme – dedicated to films for kids and young adults – Jenna Bass’s original, dynamic and affecting micro-budget dramedy uses a body-swapping trope to delve into the still-simmering race conflicts in modern South Africa. Shot entirely as a rough mockumentary mosaic’d together from its protagonists’ mobile phone footage, High Fantasy follows a group of South African youngsters on a camping trip to a farm belonging to the family of one of their number, Lexi (played by Francesca Varrie Michel and notably, the only white girl in their group). Barring a mandatory stowaway brought along by Lexi – an imposition by her uncle, who owns the property – the group is a tight-knit one, but when they wake up to discover their bodies have been swapped, latent racial and sexual tensions rise to the surface.
With a slim running time that matches its generational tendency towards streaming TV and brief video clips, High Fantasy movies with breathless energy despite it being set in one location and consisting almost entirely of frenetic conversations among teenagers.
© 2018 – VIDA Magazine – Teodor Reljić