Fest's stature struggles with lower-profile titles

Every film festival experiences an off year now and then. Sometimes there just aren’t enough good movies out there, or the pics the programmers responded to simply don’t click with the critics. The problem with Berlin is that the cold stretch has been going on too long, which is troubling for an event that has long ranked among the world’s five most important fests.

This year, I saw 35 films across all sections of the program — and there are enough sections to make you dizzy, ranging from the youth-oriented Generation lineup to the frivolous, food-focused Culinary Cinema sidebar. Of that total, I encountered one truly exceptional film (the well-chosen Golden Bear winner “Nader and Simin, a Separation,” from 2009 Silver Bear director winner Asghar Farhadi), one extremely likable ready-for-export foreign film (Gustavo Taretto’s Argentine crowd-pleaser “Medianeras”) and a handful of good-but-not-great entries from around the world (ranging from Joshua Marston’s Albania-set “The Forgiveness of Blood” to Korean dirty-cop saga “The Unjust”).

As a first-time Berlin attendee, I questioned many Berlin vets for context, and they seemed nostalgic, often apologizing on the fest’s behalf for the downhill slide: Quite a few have been coming for 10 or more years and clearly remember when the Berlin lineup was something to get excited about. In recent years, however, they said the fest seems to be propped up by the European Film Market.

This year, the hottest tickets in Berlin were at the market: the Guillermo del Toro-scripted “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” which screened to a mob of excited buyers (alas, no press were allowed), and excerpts from Madonna’s “W.E.” (garnering attention for obvious reasons) — projects that boasted an allure generally lacking in the star-starved fest. Oscar hopefuls once dominated the festival during campaign season, but now that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has pushed its dates up, Berlin had only “True Grit” and “The King’s Speech” (which began on the fest circuit five months ago).

Meanwhile, over at the festival proper, there were question marks surrounding the many first- and second-time directors whose works had been admitted. A hunt for projects by established masters turned up precious few examples, apart from Bela Tarr’s “The Turin Horse,” which was rumored to have been passed over by Venice and Cannes before landing in competition at Berlin.

For those unfamiliar with Tarr, the Hungarian director’s films demand incredible patience (“Horse” features two peasants eating potatoes and trying to force a stubborn equestrian to budge, in black and white for 2 1/2 hours). But rather than being the most tedious film in the fest, “Horse” fit right in with the many snail’s-paced pics in competish at Berlin.

Forward momentum and plot didn’t seem to be major considerations for fest inclusion. The lineup seemed heavy with slow movies with little going on, such as the Africa-set “Sleeping Sickness,” at the expense of films with vision, excitement and a real sense of purpose.

Reviewing a pic at the 2009 Berlinale, Variety’s Leslie Felperin wrote, “Almost nothing happens in the first half-hour of ‘The Exploding Girl,’ and then, suddenly, nothing much else happens.” The same could be said of most of this year’s lineup. Going in, I scoured the festival catalog for clues about films and found descriptions such as “It is only through the messages on the filmmaker’s answering machine that the viewer notes the passage of time” (which describes Thomas Imbach’s “Day Is Done,” a semi-experimental Swiss film that spends its 111-minute running time gazing out the window of a voyeur’s apartment).

Among the largely listless U.S. entries, Victoria Mahoney’s “Yelling to the Sky” features personal hood-life memories where a plot should be. Mississippi-based coming-of-ager “The Dynamiter” reaches for a poetic Terrence Malick-like sensibility but feels merely underwritten. Salton Sea-set “Bombay Beach,” an artsy documentary with dance numbers, would have worked better at about 40 minutes. And Joe Swanberg had not one but two of his thin, sexually titillating trifles in Forum. (Though Miranda July’s meandering “The Future” contains some of the performance artist-cum-director’s best work — the “shirt dance” comes to mind — it was met with far harsher reactions in Berlin than at Sundance a few weeks earlier.)

So, what makes a Berlin film? This year’s lineup was full of contradictions. Celebrated French animator Michel Ocelot’s “Tales of the Night” has real magic but was in competition alongside entries from little-known helmers whose works were dreary and/or dreadful. Meanwhile, one of the fest’s true discoveries, “Dreileben” (a series of three overlapping features about an escaped killer commissioned for German TV and directed by hometown hotshots Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf and Christoph Hochhausler), was all but buried without a proper press screening — doubly shameful when you consider the poor quality of the other German films in the fest.

Part of the problem could be that Berlin lacks a dedicated artistic director. Berlin fest director Dieter Kosslick can clearly manage the complexity of the event, with its many different sections and enormous logistical challenges. But the program this year seemed filled with play-it-safe choices, with politically correct pics embraced at the expense of truly provocative work. I longed for works that could rile up auds with wild and even dangerous choices, rather than force them to suffer ambivalence toward so many safe, unexciting titles.

The Cannes timing must also be tough, as sales agents and strategists conspicuously hold back new work from the world’s top auteurs, waiting for the Croisette. And so Berlin has to fight to retain its high rank, where even the LGBT-themed entries (of which the gay-friendly fest, with its well-established Teddy Awards, should have first pick) are undeserving of such a respected sprocket opera.

Fortunately, Berlin has the established reputation to repair the situation, and landing films such as “Nader and Simin” — far more accessible and ambitious than many other wisp-of-plot Iranian films typically found on the fest circuit — goes a long way to asserting its importance. Now, if only Kosslick and company could find more than one such film a year, Berlin would be back in business.

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