Just like horses, film festival juries can be unpredictable, sometimes wayward beasts. But it will nevertheless count as a major shock if sometime around 8pm tonight the Golden Bear of the 61st Berlinale goes to anything other than long-time front-runner Nader & Simin, A Separation (which I wrote about in my first dispatch), highbrow choice The Turin Horse (which has already nabbed the international critics’ prize here) – don’t be amazed if that pair share the Bear ex aequo, as last happened here in 2002 - or, less likely, The Future by Miranda July.
The latter is discounted by many sage judges as too divisive to win, but has no shortage of passionate admirers around festival-centre Potsdamer Platz and beyond – especially beyond, as it’s been more warmly received by the Berlin public than by the festival’s attending professionals.
The 2011 Bear (full list of films, with odds, here) therefore looks to have boiled down into a three-horse contest – one of which, amusingly, is an actual Horse - and, as juries tend to “spread the love” when handing out their gongs, whatever doesn’t get the Bear will likely get the Jury Grand Prix (i.e. runner-up prize), Best Screenplay or Best Director. In the latter category I’m predicting a bit of a “wild card” upset, with South Korea’s Lee Yoon-ki emerging right at the end of the festival as a contender with his hyper-minimalist, ultra-dry comedy of a marriage break-up Come Rain, Come Shine.
I saw it last night at a 10.30 screening in the magnificent International cinema on Karl-Marx-Allee, and while I was only intermittently engaged by its low-key delicacy, I was surprised to find a near sell-out audience – near the end of a long day, long week and long festival – held attentively rapt throughout, before generously applauding as the credits rolled.
A prime example of the “slow cinema” tendency which has become the default mode of expression for artistically-inclined directors worldwide in the last decade or so, Come Rain Come Shine takes a solemnly reflective approach to the break-up of its protagonists – in contrast to Asghar Farhadi’s Nader & Simin (where we quickly move beyond the central duo, as a tightly-constructed moral “thriller” develops) and July’s The Future, which wildly exceeded my expectations and is quite simply the funniest film I’ve seen for many months.
I can see why many viewers near-instantly lose patience with the twee main characters – played by July herself and Hamish Linklater – and their whimsical universe, but Los Angeles quasi-slackers Sophie and Jason are surely supposed to be irritatingly fey, and their daft conversations and behaviour are intended as acidic caricatures of feckless, self-absorbed thirtysomethings visible in major metropolises the world over – Berlin included.
The picture isn’t without its flaws – I wish it had a stronger ending rather than agreeably dribbling away – but as well as being hysterically funny, July (who strikes me as a combination of early Victoria Wood and even earlier Kate Bush) does use cinema’s tools of sound and vision to construct an off-kilter but somehow coherent universe with its own intricate rules and etiquette.
Of all the films in competition, I think this is the one that is going to have the warmest reception in the “wider” world, though with careful handling there’s no reason why Farhadi and Tarr’s movies (I haven’t caught the latter here – last chance to do so is tonight, if it wins the Bear) shouldn’t find appreciative audiences
My own personal favourite in competition – indeed, among the entire festival – emphatically remains Alexander Mindadze’s Chernobyl dance-marathon Innocent Saturday, which (as I wrote in my first Berlinale dispatch) dazzled me more than any new film I’ve seen since The Wrestler in October 2008.
It’s been a matter of genuine bemusement and bewilderment for me that so few people I’ve spoken to or read reviews by here share a scintilla of my enthusiasm for the movie – reactions have generally ranged from severe annoyance to mild loathing - but I’m holding out optimism that the jury (headed by Isabella Rossellini, and featuring Guy Maddin and Christian Petzold’s muse Nina Hoss) will at least recognise its merits with a Silver Bear for either leading man Anton Shagin or cinematographer Oleg Mutu.
Front-runners in the Acting categories include (among the blokes) Pierre Bokma from Ulrich Koehler’s Sleeping Sickness and non-pro newcomer Tristan Halilaj from Joshua Marston’s The Forgiveness of Blood. On the distaff side, most widely tipped is Vanessa Redgrave in Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, though don’t rule out the mother-daughter combo of Paula Galinelli Hertzog and Laura Agorreca from Paula Markovitch’s The Prize, while if it wasn’t such a hot Golden Bear prospect one might well have seen Nader & Simin three female leads ascending en masse to the podium (it could still happen, of course.)
Innocent Saturday hasn’t been the only proof that my critical locus operandi is out on a precarious limb. The favourite sport among my colleagues has, for years, been Berlinale-bashing, with particular ire directed towards the Competitions section. And while I’ve usually been happy to join in the chorus of disapproval, 2011 has cast me in the unexpected position of defending the main-section selection – of the 30 or so features I’ve seen here, the top three have been in Competition (Innocent Saturday, The Future, Nader & Simin), while I also found much to like in Argentinian slow-burn comedy A Mysterious World by Rodrigo Moreno – if anything, even more sourly received in most quarters than Innocent Saturday.
I’ve heard of lousy competition movies – notably Yelling to the Sky and Lipstikka - but have managed, through a happy combination of luck and judgement, to have dodged them. The competition movie I’ve liked least is Come Rain Come Shine, and even there I can see why certain reliable folk have fallen under its spell
Outside of competition I’ve mainly been seeing Forum titles, as the traditionally “edgy” sidebar has in previous years generally been a safer bet than Competition or the middle-ground Panorama grab-bag. Not this year: the only Forum standouts for me have been James Benning’s Twenty Cigarettes, an unusually accessible and witty return to form for the veteran US avant-gardiste after the somewhat underwheling Ruhr, and droll Quebecois comedy Familiar Ground from Stephane Lafleur.
From the other sections, Panorama’s 7 Sins Forgiven by Vishal Bhardwaj was the most unheralded pleasure, an Indian (but not Bollywood) melodrama of lusty revenge – Kill Bill meets Kind Hearts and Coronets, post-Raj style - which fully justifies, and makes one quickly forget about, its 148-minute running-time (two minutes longer than The Turin Horse!).
Lurking in the often-overlooked Perspektive Deutsches Kino, showcasing up-and-coming new German directors, were a couple of noteworthy debuts worth seeking out: Dirk Lütter’s clinical dissection of 21st century workplace dysfunctions in The Education, and Nicolas Steiner’s crowdpleasing documentary Battle of the Queens, chronicling a cow-fighting tournament in a remote Swiss valley. The latter’s high-contrast, lush black-and-white cinematography by Markus Nestroy was a particular joy – as Andy Warhol remarked upon Carrie: “Loved it. Finally somebody did slow-motion right.”
Berlin, 19th February 2011