After a couple of unusually strong years, there’s a widespread feeling that this year’s Berlin Film Festival is a return to disappointing form, with a vengeance. It’s not so much a question of utterly dreadful films being on offer as of an overall level of mediocrity.
True, some have complained of stinkers, but that’s probably inevitable – and I for one have managed to avoid such extremes. Indeed, many of the films have been fairly decent in one way or another, but with a couple of exceptions, all the Competition films, even the best, have been undermined by a fairly obvious flaw.
Take as an example the Greek film Stratos (To mikro psari, pictured above), by Yannis Economidis. About a man whose job in a pastry factory is a cover for a legendarily criminal past and an ongoing present as a hitman, the film is a stylish, intelligent crime movie which succeeds as a somewhat exaggerated but coherent reflection on the recent economic history of Greece, taking in moral indolence, apathy, corruption, an obsession with money and so on.
The trouble is that the film, for all its resonance and engaging eccentricity, suffers from being unduly protracted and repetitive: the script has the characters say things over and over again – tiresome, even if one want to make a point about too much talk and no action – and each scene would benefit by being cut by a third. So the film drags even as it intrigues.
Similarly, Dietrich Brüggemann’s The Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg) [which Nick James weighed up in this space on Tuesday] – for me perhaps the finest film in competition – performs a very impressive balancing act between satire and drama as it deals with the effects of a family’s reactionary Catholic faith on the teenage daughter. But even then, thanks to one brief moment involving a few ill-chosen words of dialogue and to one later unfortunate camera movement – minor problems, admittedly, but still misjudgements which contradict the main thrust of the film – there is a disappointing aftertaste.
Other titles have been decent but dull, sensitive, well-intentioned treatments of promising or worthwhile subjects which never really flared into full cinematic life. A notable exception to this tendency was Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice (Bai Ri Yan Huo), a consistently entertaining noir policier about investigations into gruesome killings in northern China in 1999 and 2004.
Again the film is flawed by the odd clumsy, perhaps unintentionally funny moment and by a narrative that occasionally rambles a little; but it deploys its staple elements – divorced detective who drinks too much, femme fatale, mysterious prime suspect – with genuine affection, so that one forgives and is carried along by any familiar tropes. It’s also good to see a film which is pleasingly discreet in evoking rather than explicitly depicting horrendous violence.
Towards the end of the festival, there have been perhaps two films in competition which do actually manage to achieve more or less what they set out to do. One is another Chinese film, Ning Hao’s No Man’s Land (Wu Ren Qu), a thriller with clear aspirations to Leone-esque mythical grandeur but which is rather a case of comic-strip caricature combined with car commercial flashiness. With an episodic narrative chronicling a protracted desert-valley conflict between a shady lawyer, policemen, peasants, petrol-station proprietors and prairie falcon poachers, the film is slick, relentlessly eventful, bloody and ludicrous, and clearly aimed to appeal primarily to teenage boys. Quite what it was doing in Berlin’s competition remains a mystery.
Though likewise efficient in pushing certain buttons, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is an altogether more mature and satisfying affair. Shot over almost a dozen years using the same actors, the film simply charts the lives of a young brother and sister – and their divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) – in broad strokes generally focussing on familial relationships, schoolfriends and dates. In short, it’s not unlike a longer (164 minutes!), looser and more ambitious sibling to Michael Winterbottom’s Everyday, and like that film it works its spell more successfully as it goes on, largely because we gradually come to feel that we somehow do know these people, fascinated as their appearances change from year to year.
If the movie ends up painting a slightly rosy, even sentimental picture of the road to young adulthood – or at least, in the boy Mason’s case, to his first day at university – Linklater’s assured sense of psychological and sociological detail means that as an evocation of the experience of growing up, the film will ring a great many bells for those who see it. Certainly, the very warm response at the Berlinale press screening – perhaps fostered by a relief that it hadn’t turned out to be yet another mediocrity – suggests it is a strong contender for an award of some sort. It undoubtedly deserves one.