Berlin: Strong 2016 Fest Buoyed by Artistic Innovation, Identification (Opinion)

Rearview: Looking back on Berlin lineup, Variety critic finds impressive examples of both forward- and inward-looking films, from 'Miles Ahead' to Golden Bear winner 'Fire at Sea' (above).

Rearview: Variety Critic Picks Best Films of 2016 Berlin Film Fest
Photo Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

In the opening scene of Berlin best director winner Mia Hansen-Love’s “Things to Come,” a French philosophy teacher (insightfully played by Isabelle Huppert) spends her vacation grading essays, having posed a relatively simple challenge to her students: “Can we put ourselves in the place of another?” That question may as well have been the mantra of this year’s Berlin competition lineup.

Historically speaking, Berlin is not exactly known for having the world’s most empathetic program. Typically, the lineup spans an eclectic and often challenging mix of auteur films (such as Lav Diaz’s eight-hour “A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery”), avant garde/experimental fare (which make up the bulk of the Forum section) and political statements (one or two anti-Nazi pics, presumably in expiation for the nation’s past, plus a range of immigrant-sensitive/anti-colonialist/free-expression statements). Throw in a bunch of LGBT-themed movies (the most of any mainstream festival, with the best honored for the past 30 years by the Teddy Awards), plus special sections for youth- and foodie-themed movies (in the Generation and Culinary Cinema sidebars), and it’s a lot to wrap one’s head around.

With more than 400 films and half a million tickets sold, it’s by far the world’s largest film festival. In fact, any given Berlin lineup can be so unwieldy to sample and describe, practically no recap can do it justice. So why not simply focus on the best? From the Golden Bear-winning documentary “Fire at Sea” to Hansen-Love’s deeply personal “Things to Come,” from “United States of Love’s” wrenching study of female loneliness and longing to Andre Techine’s vibrant stab at capturing adolescent angst in “Being 17,” the festival’s most celebrated films invite audience to put themselves in someone else’s place.

No film illustrates that better than “Fire at Sea,” directed by Gianfranco Rosi, an Italian filmmaker whose previous documentaries (notably “Sacro GRA” and “El Sicario, Room 164”) have earned their share of festival prizes, but never a rave from Variety. Still, lowered expectations can be a gift when gem-hunting at festivals, and “Fire at Sea” turned out to be a little humanist treasure tucked amid a lineup of more ambitious titles. Working virtually alone, Rosi spent a year on the island of Lampedusa, whose position (roughly halfway between the coast of Africa and Sicily) puts it on the front line of Europe’s immigrant crisis. It is there, on that lightly inhabited eight-square-mile stretch of Italian territory, that undocumented outsiders first land.

Rather than attempting to delve into the crises that compel many African and Middle Eastern refugees to seek opportunity in Europe, Rosi focuses on two characters: Lampedusa’s resident doctor, whose family medicine practice has been overtaken by emergency care and autopsy duty for immigrants recovered by the Italian navy, and the 12-year-old son of a local fisherman. Though he suffers from anxiety, the boy may as well be oblivious to the crisis happening just off the island’s coastline. The doctor, however, can’t help but identify with the flood of people surging through Lampedusa’s processing center — “It’s the duty of every human being to help these people,” he says at one point — and through his compassionate attitude, we feel for them as well.

A more conventional, if rarely matched, sort of empathy characterizes Tomasz Wasilewski’s “United States of Love,” which delves into the private pangs of four Polish women, circa 1990. The Cold War can’t thaw fast enough in this heavily desaturated group portrait, in which a quartet of deeply felt female performances illustrate both the oppression of former Communist rule and a more international yearning for human connection. Considering jury president Meryl Streep’s comments (both before and during the festival) regarding women’s standing in the industry, I fully expected the best actress prize to be shared by“Love’s” four leads, much as the 2011 jury had acknowledged “A Separation’s” entire distaff ensemble.

One of only two female directors in competition, Hansen-Love conceived “Things to Come” as a tribute to her mother, crafting the film as an attempt to understand how a woman comfortably established in her family and career adapts to being left by her husband of 20 years. I don’t know how closely the film mirrors what happened between the director’s actual parents, both philosophy teachers, though the entire project is clearly an attempt to put herself in the Huppert character’s shoes, complicated by the fact that it is presumably her on-screen proxy who gives her dad the ultimatum of choosing between his wife and his mistress, with irreversible consequences. Alternately wistful and inspiring, it’s a charitable homage to a rigorously intellectual woman forced to let go — of her husband, mother and protege — over the course of roughly one year’s time.

Intriguingly enough, with “Things to Come,” Hansen-Love (widely regarded as one of French cinema’s new young talents) attempts to channel the experience of characters older than herself. Meanwhile, 72-year-old Techine delivers his most youthful film yet, collaborating with “Girlhood” director Celine Sciamma on the screenplay for “Being 17,” a film that makes every effort to re-create the agitation, impulsiveness and pent-up potential energy of that age. Another terrific screen mother, this one played by Sandrine Kiberlain, finds herself escalating the suppressed sexual tension between her son (Kacey Mottet Klein) and a classmate (Corentin Fila) in a snapshot of adolescent turmoil whose most identifiable aspects have far more to do with coming of age than coming out.

These four terrific and deeply empathetic films alone — just 1% of the overall lineup — are more than enough to represent an encouraging edition for what is often one of the year’s most challenging festivals. Add to that the sheer dynamism of Don Cheadle’s directorial debut, “Miles Ahead” (making its European premiere, having previously played the New York and Sundance film festivals), and this year’s Berlinale practically calls for celebration.

While Hollywood wrestles with its scandalous #OscarsSoWhite phenomenon, Cheadle delivers a film that would be criminal to overlook in the acting, writing, directing and (especially) best picture categories come this time next year — that rare portrait of a musician that manages to pioneer a cinematic language worthy of its subject, incorporating those fixtures of the genre (drug abuse, ego, infidelity) in surprising ways, while dodging and weaving between states of mind and time in unexpected, yet intuitive ways. As with Davis’ own music, one marvels at the effect, admiring while never quite being able to articulate how Cheadle pulls it off. It’s a stunning achievement — one that not only puts us in Davis’ shoes, but also replicates the thrill of witnessing the evolution of an artistic form for the first time.