Day 4 of the 68th Berlinale. Nine competition films have already screened with ten more to go. For an edition that opened so strong, it’s somewhat disappointing that masterpieces haven’t been landing left and right as hoped.
Which is not to say there hasn’t been some fine films. Besides the absolutely delightful ISLE OF DOGS, my favorite so far is probably the feature debut of Paraguayan writer/director Marcelo Martinessi entitled THE HEIRESSES. The delicate, quietly surprising drama revolves around middle-aged Chela (Ana Brun), one half of a lesbian couple who was born into an affluent household but lately has been forced to sell off furniture and other heirloom to get by. When her partner is sent to jail for fraud, Chela, whose life used to be a set of breezy, self-contained routines, must venture out of her comfort zone to relearn things about this world and herself.
Martinessi’s screenplay touches on the many inexplicable turns that make life such a sweet and sometimes painful mystery. An older lady with no experience behind the wheels could suddenly become the neighborhood’s Baby Driver. A heart that doesn’t seem like it still has the capacity for passionate, reckless love may feel that rush again when you least expect it to. Directed with subtlety and a genuine affection for its protagonist, the film unfolds like a gentle dance, hitting notes of joy and regret without heavy-handed dramatics. It might feel slight to some as a result but the faint traces of melancholy it leaves behind are truly exquisite.
For someone who has adored everything he has done, especially the devastating, outside the critics’ community underappreciated PHOENIX (2014), German filmmaker Christian Petzold’s TRANSIT is a bit of a let-down. The ambitious, formally inventive drama is based on the eponymous novel by Anna Seghers published in 1944. The background and plot of that WWII-themed book, however, are transplanted to present-day Marseilles. And so we see the story about an accidental identity theft play out in a France grappling with the current refugee crisis, while passports of the Third Reich are used and the German Occupation is supposed to be underway.
The audacity of making what’s essentially a Holocaust movie in today’s context is by itself admirable. And Petzold, ever the thinking man’s director, brings his trademark cool, uncompromising intellect to the table. The result is a unique if not entirely successful take on Hitchcockian themes with political undertones. Lead actor Franz Rogowski, potentially the next big thing of European cinema, is wonderful to watch. He has one of those aquiline, at once vulnerable and slightly menacing faces you can’t quite figure out. The brooding intensity he brings to the picture is already drawing acclaim and Joaquin Phoenix comparisons. A Berlin Best Actor prize could be next.
Also featuring a strong male lead performance is French competition entry THE PRAYER, in which Anthony Bajon plays a drug addict/high school dropout trying to get sober at a secluded, convent-like community. Cédric Kahn’s clear-eyed direction highlights the destructive force of substance abuse and the superhuman strength it takes to quit. Using economical but affecting strokes he describes a sanctuary of fraternity, discipline and brutal honesty. Even though there’s nothing spectacular about the story, you’re with these damaged characters and the very human struggles they face every step of the way.
In this day and age where religion is systematically weaponized, I tend to find anything overtly faith-based suspicious. As such, certain scenes in this movie, which has a pretty obvious pro-religion message, leave an icky aftertaste in my mouth. However, considering the filmmaker goes about it from the specific and relatable angle of overcoming addiction, I would give it the benefit of the doubt. Also the quality of the filmmaking itself, including the changed-man star turn by Bajon, is unquestionable. So expect this to be among awards chatter at the end of the festival.
Something else of note is that the Berlinale, as per tradition, once again hosts a great variety of films with prominent female characters. In addition to THE HEIRESSES mentioned above, Sundance cross-over DAMSEL features a brilliant heroine played by Mia Wasikowska that turns the misogynistic western tradition squarely on its head. Italian motherhood drama DAUGHTER OF MINE is carried by two of the country’s best working actresses Valeria Golino and Alba Rohrwacher. The latter, playing a young alcoholic who feels no natural motherly love towards her child, especially, should be considered a hot contender for the Best Actress prize. French erotic thriller EVA and Swedish violent comedy THE REAL ESTATE don’t work on the whole, but both star 60+ leading ladies (Isabelle Huppert and Léonore Ekstrand) as women who are sharp, vital, sexual, and who wield control over others. Here’s hoping the second half of the festival will bring more richly observed (female) characters in even better films.