Berlin’s mixed messages

Commentary on the frustrations surrounding fest

With three days to go in the Berlinale’s 60th anni, “festive” is hardly the adjective most of the assembled press and industryites would apply to the program screened so far.

Maybe it was the ice that reduced the streets around Potsdamer Platz to treacherous skating rinks, or maybe the right films just weren’t available (the time-honored defense of every embattled fest topper). But this year’s Official Selection has played out in a worthy but often dull way, like a giant festival walking in slow motion. Few titles have generated any buzz or heated discussion, and even fewer people have been shouting about their discoveries.

The tone was set by the opener, former Berlinale Golden Bear winner Wang Quanan’s “Apart Together,” a nice little well-crafted film about cross-straits Chinese separation but hardly the film to kickstart the anniversary of a major festival.

Hopes were raised that Roman Polanski’s political thriller “The Ghost Writer” and Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” would put some lead into the fest’s opening-weekend pencil. But the former drew a mixed-to-blah response and “Shutter,” though adding some glitz missing from the opening night, drew opinions that ranged from good to conventional. Fellow vet Zhang Yimou’s “Blood Simple” remake, “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop,” shown in its slightly trimmed international version, was liked but not lauded.

Other U.S. fare has been generally well received (Sundancers “Howl,” “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “Please Give,” “The Kids Are All Right”), but without setting the Official Selection alight. Ditto the world preem of Ben Stiller starrer “Greenberg.”

With more people openly questioning what exactly are the Berlinale’s selection criteria — favorite directors, regardless of quality? German co-production coin? Politically correct themes? — this year’s competition, though a qualitative improvement on last year’s, hardly had a heft befitting one of the world’s top fests.

Several known names have been repped by sub-par or arthouse 101 entries (Rafi Pitt’s “The Hunter,” Thomas Vinterberg’s “Submarino,” Semih Kaplanoglu’s “Honey”), with discussion largely centering on Japanese maverick Koji Wakamatsu’s quirky but full of character “Caterpiller,” Romanian Florian Serban’s lean drama “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle” and Norwegian Hans Petter Moland’s droll “A Somewhat Gentle Man.” But even these are small, Europubcaster-like pics, with minimal potential outside the fest realm.

As of Wednesday, the competition was showing late signs of life with Aleksei Popogrebsky’s strikingly individual Arctic-set drama, “How I Ended This Summer,” and German-Afghani Burhan Qurbani’s good-looking Islamic compendium “Shahada.” Some potential baubles are still to unspool, including world preems “On the Path” by Jasmila Zbanic (“Grbavica”) and “A Family” by Pernille Fischer Christensen (“A Soap”), with Sundancer “The Killer Inside Me,” by Michael Winterbottom, high on the must-see lists of crix.

Not for the first time, several of the best pleasures have been away from the Official Selection, with Jan Hrebejk’s family-political drama “Kawasaki’s Rose” and Feo Aladag’s “When We Leave” deemed worthy by some of competition slots rather than Panorama. And Forum fronted two smartly directed audience pleasers from — of all places — Taiwan (“Au Revoir Taipei,” “One Day”).

However, unlike some previous years, neither of these sidebars came up with many real discoveries, either on a gay/political level in Panorama or progressive/experimental level in Forum. As always, the young people’s section, Generation, solidly did its job, whereas the Perspektive Deutsches Kino confirmed it needs a total overhaul.

Though questions about the Berlinale’s overall selection policy and sheer bulk need to be addressed, some of the lack of excitement has been simply due to miscasting.

If festivity is the name of the game, why not open with the restored “Metropolis” or even the Shah Rukh Khan megahit “My Name Is Khan”?

It’s time the Bear let its hair down again — and took some real chances — to rediscover its growl.

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