AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
LEFT LUGGAGE –
48th INTERNATIONALE FILMFESTSPIELE BERLIN
by Harlan Kennedy
This year, before anyone could
say "Josef Goebbels would turn in his
grave," he did. Just days before the fest began,
the defunct Propaganda Minister's bunker was discovered during earth-turning
in the Potsdamer
This is – at least for
So was it by accident or unwitting design that almost every Competition movie – or every good one – was about tolerance or intolerance? Having kicked off with a film touching on the Irish Troubles, Jim Sheridan's The Boxer, fest boss Moritz De Hadeln followed with another: Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy. And early on we had three fine tone poems about cruelty versus forgiveness, or closed systems versus openminded humanity, in the Anglo-Dutch Left Luggage, the Norwegian Barbara, and the Brazilian Central Station.
The Butcher Boy is
Drops – or dollops – of James
Joyce, too. The film's religiosity has a high, arch ambivalence. Though
visions of the Virgin Mary appear to the boy at reform school (
Since religious zealotry and sectarianism also got duffed up in Barbara and Left Luggage, we were all free-thinkers by the end of the festival's opening week. The first flick is a sumptuously lensed epic based on a novel written and set in the Bergman-beloved Faro islands. There is much buy-by-the-meter melodrama: a man-hungry woman, a weak-willed young priest, sex, storms, and religious censure. However, director Nils Malmros puts a twist of feral farce into the angst-scapes and coaxes performances that measure up to the elements, especially Anneke von der Lippe's Streep-like heroine.
Left Luggage is more
demure but also laser-sharp in detailing. It tells parallel tales of two
Jewish families in
Mostly, though, if you showed
You could almost set Central do Brasil
(Central Station) to music. This feel-good movie about urban
alienation is Paper Moon-meets-Pixote. Raddled
con-woman Fernanda Montenegro – a dead ringer for
Brigitte Mira in Fear Eats the Soul – takes grudging pity on orphaned
street kid Vinicius de Olivera,
and before you can say "picarescu" (which
is obviously the Portuguese for picaresque) they are traipsing all over
Brazil. Writer-director Walter Salles aims his
blowpipe darts at both the country's welfare system and its network of fake
charity (including purchasing kids for organ donation). But the film also
explores escapist myths – the open road, the sertao
as the country's soul – with a rich, scenic
amplitude that indulges even as it gently indicts. The Golden Bear thought
long and hard about embracing this movie, then did so. Señora
Like Salles's take on the tolerance/intolerance theme, Michael Winterbottom's I Want You – which unfairly went prizeless – pits human compassion against the impatient, generalized prescriptiveness of social bureaucracy. Its English seaside town is Hell on rollerblades: a jumble of sickly skies, peeling promenades, and stony beaches, patrolled by scuzzy youths. The film was lensed – we could almost have guessed – by Slawomir Idziak, who created the dystopic mazes of A Short Film About Killing.
Much of this grim, mosaic moodpiece is brilliant. Lives intersect without quite
connecting: a young ex-con, his ex-girl and an immigrant Bosnian brother and
sister – he a mute Peeping Tom festooned with watching and listening gadgets
– who live in a cottage on
At least I Want You was
brisk. One no-go area less happily breached in taboo-bashing
Today – especially after Titanic – a movie's length is whatever you want it to be. So Berliners yawned through Jackie Brown, with Tarantino rewinding the narrative so often he resembled a shaggy dog with compulsive-repetition syndrome. (But Samuel L. Jackson nabbed the Best Actor prize.) We kept mentally scissoring the overplotted and undernourished The Big Lebowski, which should have come in at 30 minutes rather than 112. And there were signs of crisis even in humbler non-Hollywood movies whose reach exceeded their grasp.
Two were Pupi Avati's Il testimone dello sposo (The Best Man) and Guy Maddin's Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. Both had shards of genius. The Italian tale of an arranged wedding wrecked by the bride's infatuation with the best man starts like a lost Visconti – velvety-sumptuous images and a supporting cast sketched with daguerreotype immediacy – and then gets lost down corridors of indecision. Mainly, it isn't sure whether to focus on the colorless inamorati or the rumbustious characters around them.
The Canadian pic, a fairy tale inspired by painter Gustave Moreau, has moments of kitschy rapture to rival Maddin's great Careful: including live ostrich necks to lend moments of pass-by perpendicularity in the foreground. (Female ostriches: don't ask me how I know.) But it is also stuck with a meandering script and two lost-looking stars in Shelley Duvall and Frank Gorshin.
Maddin himself appeared to answer questions (all ambiguity in that phrasing is intentional) when the wry, sly Canuck was pushed into the spotlight between his film and a goodish documentary about him by Noam Gonick. Maddin never lets on whether his film(s) are meant to be funny, but that ambivalence is half their charm. My hunch is: he will make a masterpiece if he can persuade the money-men to listen to him rather than to impose the compromises that led (Maddin seemed close to admitting) to Twilight of the Ice Nymphs.
WHEN DISAPPOINTED, we could
always flee the main-event cinemas for the Retrospective. The Siodmak brothers – late Robert and very-much-alive Curt –
made movies that are so quick you can miss them if you look down too long at
your popcorn. The Beast With Five Fingers, 88 minutes (less than 18
minutes per finger); The Spiral Staircase, 83; Abschied,
75; I Walked With a Zombie, 68. The Siodmak
Bros. came in, did their stuff, went away. So did
He showed up the VIP
"no-shows," of whom there were several. Quentin Tarantino was too
busy understudying Audrey Hepburn or something on Broadway. Barry Wag the
Dog Levinson and Dustin Ditto Hoffman were too busy answering
Senate subcommittee questions on prior knowledge of Presidential crises. And
Robert "three-films-in-one-festival" De Niro
was too busy in
It was riveting stuff. But then
so was every last day at
The does were Donna Deitch's Angel
on My Shoulder and
Susan Muska and Gréta Ólafsdóttir's The
Brandon Teena Story. The second is a
mesmerizing inquest into the murder of a transsexual by two redneck
homophobes, and into the can-of-worms community where this happened. (Why
would anyone want to be from
Twenty years after stripping
Gwen Welles would have applauded the International Critics Jury at Berlin, when they said ya-boo to Golden Bear choices and gave their all-festival prize to Nobuhiko Obayashi's Sada. This is Oshima's Empire of the Senses retold as if by Dadaists. For Obayashi, the true story of the geisha who killed her lover and cut off his penis is an excuse not for graphic sex – there is none – but for human farce followed by a wonderful rallentando of tragic stoicism.
Some critics hated the
knockabout first hour. Sada flips between color and
monochrome, casually "inks in" digitalized backdrops of bygone
Nor can the festivalgoer. Goodbye to Berlin '98. Exit, pursued by Bears.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MAY-JUNE 1998 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.