Best, Worst of the Berlin Film

Variety critics weigh the merits of the Berlin competition lineup, as well as a few of the gems scattered elsewhere in the fest.

SCOTT FOUNDAS: Hi Peter. Well, we’ve officially reached the midpoint of the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, although the most hotly anticipated event in this cold, cold town is still another day away. I’m talking, of course, about the world premiere of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which isn’t the kind of movie one typically thinks of as festival fare, but which events like Berlin and Cannes need as a kind of palate cleanser from the steady parade of world-class arthouse cinema from countries like Iran, China and Chile. Those movies may get you lots of ink in Variety, but it’s only a “Fifty Shades” that can get your red carpet splattered all over the picture pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair.

Actually, the early days of Berlin haven’t exactly wanted for stars this year, with the likes of Christian Bale, Juliette Binoche, James Franco (surprise!), Nicole Kidman and Natalie Portman walking the steps of the Berlinale Palast for the premieres of new films by Werner Herzog, Terrence Malick and Spain’s unaccountably prolific Isabel Coixet (who kicked the festival off with the aptly titled opening-night stinker “Nobody Wants the Night”). But as it happens, the most buzzed-about film of the festival’s first half has been one whose director and star never set foot inside the German border. That movie is “Taxi,” by the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who’s been banned from making movies and consigned to house arrest ever since running afoul of his country’s harsh government censors in 2010. And yet, miraculously, Panahi has continued to work, illegally and at great risk to himself and his artistic collaborators, beginning with the acclaimed “This Is Not a Film,” smuggled out of Iran on a zip drive and screened at Cannes in 2011; and “Closed Curtain,” which won a screenplay prize in Berlin in 2013.

“Taxi” is Panahi’s third post-arrest feature, and it may be the most remarkable of the lot. Certainly, it’s the most audacious, with Panahi starring as himself, but disguised as a cab driver shuttling passengers around the busy streets of Tehran. (They’re played by actors, too, though the movie maintains a playful docu-fiction surface throughout.) If that risks making “Taxi” sound like an arthouse “Cash Cab,” fret not: It’s actually an incredibly sophisticated piece of filmmaking that constantly winks and nods at its own unlikely existence while tackling a variety of desperately serious subjects, from Sharia Law to the very artistic censorship that seeks to silence voices as vital as Panahi’s own.

PETER DEBRUGE: I envy that you’ve seen something great in competition here, Scott. In recent years, Berlin has become rather notorious for the second-rate quality of its lineup, suffering from the fact that most of the world’s great auteurs would rather wait the three months for the chance to premiere in Cannes. On paper, this year’s program contained several coups, however, including the latest offerings from Panahi, Malick (whose mostly L.A.-set “Knight of Cups” is competing), Herzog (“Queen of the Desert”) and Wim Wenders (“Every Thing Will Be Fine”), suggesting that festival director Dieter Kosslick had really fought to get some first-rate stuff.

At least the Panahi film seems to have panned out. “Knight of Cups” (whose publicists engineered for it to be reviewed out of the U.S., hoping for a more favorable reception) turns out to be yet another “To the Wonder”-style doodle, as Christian Bale plays a Hollywood screenwriter drifting along in a wide-angle reverie, as a rotating cast of sexual partners and random movie stars slip in and out of his life. Ever since “The Tree of Life” (which I found genuinely profound, I hasten to add), Malick has been stuck in some sort of confused haze, making movies about characters who’ve lost their way. There are hints of a dead brother (invoked by surviving one Wes Bentley), an angry father (Brian Dennehy), a wounded plastic-surgeon wife (Cate Blanchett) and more, but like so many films in Berlin — whose appetite for wispy, elliptical, barely narrative films far exceeds my own — one has to read the press notes to discern much of what’s going on.

At least “Queen of the Desert,” while disappointing relative to Herzog’s best work, does audiences the favor of telling a straightforward story — and it’s a pretty great one at that, describing the pioneering spirit of British explorer Gertrude Bell (embodied by Nicole Kidman), who defied the polite expectations put on women at the time to trek far and wide throughout the Middle East. She’s a great, larger-than-life Herzog character, even if the film strives a bit too mightily to define her by a pair of romances, one with a somewhat ridiculous-looking James Franco (who plays the role with dark circles under his eyes and a lazy, inconsistent accent).

The best female performance I’ve seen here yet has been Charlotte Rampling’s in “45 Years,” a sensitive yet slender portrait of a long-married woman forced to re-evaluate her marriage after nearly half a century that couldn’t be more different from the statements writer-director Andrew Haigh has made about the challenges facing young gay men seeking connection in his previous “Weekend” and the HBO series “Looking.” The revelation here has nothing to do with homosexuality, I should point out, but questions what straight people have long taken for granted: the so-called “institution of marriage” and what it represents.

FOUNDAS: You’re certainly right, Peter, that Cannes remains the premiere destination for the world’s biggest name-brand auteurs, with new films from Arnaud Desplechin, Gaspar Noe, Nanni Moretti, Matteo Garrone, Hou Hsiao Hsien and Jia Zhangke already rumored to be in the running for the upcoming edition. These days, when a director with that kind of pedigree pops up at Berlin — as Hungary’s Bela Tarr did in 2011 with “The Turin Horse” —  it typically means that Cannes either passed on the film, or that some contractual obligation required a premiere sooner than May.

If there’s a downside to Cannes’ embarrassment of riches, though, it’s that there’s rarely much room in the official competition there for new or lesser-known directors, whose work instead gets relegated to the Un Certain Regard, Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week sidebars. But in Berlin, the competition is routinely more of a discovery zone, where a movie like last year’s wonderful “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” the third feature by the relatively unknown Chinese director Diao Yinan, can even walk off with the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear (in that case, beating out both “Boyhood” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”).

This year, one of those happy discoveries has been director Jayro Bustamante’s “Ixcanul Volcano,” a debut feature from a country — Guatemala — that only produces a handful of movies a year to begin with. I know that, on paper, the description of Bustamante’s film gave some festival-goers pause, because it sounded like one of those overly earnest social dramas about exploited indigenous people that sometimes get shown for humanistic reasons rather than aesthetic ones. But “Ixcanul Volcano” is no politically correct charity case: It’s an intensely beautiful and transporting movie that plunges you deep into the rhythms and rituals of daily life in a community of Kaqchikel Mayans who live and work on a coffee plantation located at the foot of a giant volcano. It’s a precarious perch, less due to Mother Nature than to the lava flow of First World culture, which pushes its way ever further into the lives of the natives as the movie progresses.

Bustamante made the movie in close collaboration with a real Kaqchikel community, and the results have an uncanny authenticity, the sense of a long voiceless people being empowered to tell their own stories through cinema. It’s also, I dare say, a far more Herzogian movie than “Queen of the Desert,” which I wish I liked even as much as you, Peter, but which struck me as a hopelessly dull and sudsy reduction of an inherently very interesting story, and maybe the only Herzog film ever sorely lacking in a sense of physical scale and peril. The great French critic Jean-Michel Frodon has said that, watching it, one forever senses the actors’ air-conditioned trailers lurking just outside the frame, and, despite my lifelong admiration of Herzog, I must sadly agree.

DEBRUGE: I’m not sure that the Berlin competition is all that different from Cannes in the sense that it tends to over-emphasize established names, rather than gambling on new discoveries. Given the sheer number of parallel sections, there’s a good chance that attendees will find some treasures scattered between indie Panorama, experimental Forum, local Perspektive Deutsches Kino, youth-focused Generation and even the foodie-baiting Culinary Cinema sidebar. But I won’t pretend that it’s not exhausting — punishing even — truffle hunting among the brambles of so many movies made with so little concern for conventional narrative.

I’ve found two gems in my forays so far. The first is “600 Miles,” the feature directorial debut of Gabriel Ripstein, heir to one of Mexico’s great filmmaking dynasties. (His father, Arturo Ripstein, competed in Cannes three times, and it won’t be long before Gabriel finds himself at that stage.) If Daddy made hot, red-blooded movies attacking the Mexican establishment, then the son offers the cool, desanguinated alternative: a look at firearms smuggling between the U.S. and Latin America told in startlingly desensationalized fashion — a movie about illegal gun traffic with precious little shooting. Driven instead by tension and subtext, “600 Miles” benefits enormously from Tim Roth’s performance as an ATF agent kidnapped and taken south of the border. Roth met producer Michel Franco while serving as head of the Un Certain Regard jury, and agreed to star in this film and another which Rubio is directing, “Chronic,” which we’ll likely see at Cannes.

By far my favorite film here has been another debut, an American movie called “Petting Zoo,” also stashed in the festival’s crowded Panorama section. This one was directed by Micah Magee, who grew up in San Antonio, but spent most of the last decade in Berlin, which gives her a bit of distance from her relatively provincial Texas upbringing (which I say admiringly, being a Waco boy now based in Paris). Reminiscent of “Boyhood” in the way it captures the raw experience of small-town adolescence while nimbly avoiding the usual cliches of coming-of-age movies, this film actually resonated more with me than Richard Linklater’s — a potentially blasphemous claim, I realize, in response to a film that offers more than just the passage of time by way of plot. I’ll save the rest for my review, but suffice it to say, I would like to see either of these films eligible for Berlin’s Golden Bear.

FOUNDAS: On that note, I guess we’re far enough into the festival now to start handicapping potential prizewinners. I still haven’t managed to catch “Knight of Cups,” but based on everything I’ve heard — and the fact that this year’s jury president, Darren Aronofsky, delved deep into Malickian mysticism for his own “The Fountain” — one has to assume it’s at least in the running. It also wouldn’t surprise me if both Aronofsky and his fellow juror Bong Joon-ho (“Snowpiercer”) cottoned to “Under Electric Clouds,” a wildly ambitious, undeniably overreaching, often quite brilliant head trip from Russian director Alexey German Jr.

This is a capital-A art movie of the first order, like some gene-spliced hybrid of “Last Year at Marienbad” and “The City of Lost Children,” divided into seven loosely interconnected chapters and set alternately in the near future and the recent past. For most of the running time, morosely philosophizing characters drift zombie-like thorough a polyglot, globalized Russia where the artistic and cultural riches of the past have been sacrificed at the altar of capitalism — all of it staged by German in long, meticulously choreographed tracking shots that rival the ones in the films of his late father (“Hard to Be a God,” “Khrustalyov, My Car!”). But to say more about the characters or the plot would be beside the point: German is working in a poetic idiom, trying to express something deep about the atrophying of the Russian soul, and I, for one, emerged from the screening both shaken and stirred.

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