Berlin awards a mix of farce and tragedy

It is amazing, isn’t it? You leave people in a room for two, three, four hours; you provide them with coffee and sandwiches; and they come back with a set of decisions you could have got from monkeys with typewriters. No: on second thoughts, the monkeys would have come up with something better.

The prizes for the 62nd Berlin Filmfestspiele are the worst jury awards I can remember in 40 years of attending festivals. The bestowing of the Golden Bear on Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Caesar Must Die would be a farce if it were not a tragedy. So many good films were passed over in a 20-entry competition to honour this clapped-out drama documentary about Italian prison inmates putting on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

What were Mike Leigh and his jurors thinking of? There is no moment of freshness or original insight in this movie, which arduously peddles the bromide that art is good for prisoners. As a viewing experience Caesar Must Die resembles some late, exhausted gasp of Brechtian didacticism. The only thought the film provokes in a sapient spectator is the distance the Tavianis have travelled – downwards – since their first, deserved top honour, the Cannes Golden Palm, for Padre Padrone (1977).

Let us pass swiftly over the two prizes awarded to a bloated Danish historical drama – best screenplay (Rasmus Heisterberg with director Nikolaj Arcel) and best actor (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) for A Royal Affair – and the outstanding achievement Silver Bear to Chinese director Wang Quanan’s White Deer Plain, whose only outstanding achievement was its length (188 minutes).

The jury mitigated its myopic mayhem with a best director prize to Germany’s Christian Petzold, whose Barbara was some critics’ favourite. But they sharpened our dismay by giving the runner-up prize – so near, yet so far – to Hungary’s Just the Wind, which even more reviewers thought should have got the Golden Bear.

Bence Fliegauf’s first feature was shown on the penultimate day, too late for inclusion in my previous report. (I saw the Tavianis’ film on the second day: too uninteresting for inclusion in my previous report.) Fliegauf gives us a masterclass in divide and conquer. Divide the members of a household by cross-cutting their stories – a Romany family fearing for their lives in a village with a hate-crimes history – and conquer the audience, for whom each character then becomes particular, compelling, richly realised.

We may not give these people our moral approbation: the petty-thieving young son, the truant, barely literate daughter, the mother stacking up debts to the local mafia. But the diaspora of stories, following each character into the byways of their dreams, hopes, fears, forebodings, lends power to their re-convergence in the gruelling climax. There is no false note in this film and many that echo in the mind long after.

The competition stayed strong to the finish with Matthias Glasner’s Mercy from Germany/Norway, a tale of unravelling lives in the spectacular scenery of an Arctic coastal village, and Canadian film-maker Kim Nguyen’s African-set War Witch, the odyssey of a child soldier, a girl (Rachel Mwanza), in a brutal civil war. Mwanza won the best actress prize. There were better female performances in the festival, but this was one of the jury’s minor travesties of justice.

For the record, the main Berlin awards should have been as follows. Golden Bear: Just the Wind. Special Jury Prize: Brillante Mendoza’s Captive from the Philippines, which plunged us vividly into the fray and turmoil of a truth-based hostage crisis. Best director: Spiros Stathoulopoulos for the beautiful, visionary-naif Greek film Meteora. Best actor: Robert Duvall, trouncing stellar competition in Jayne Mansfield’s Car. Best actress, by a mile: Isabelle Huppert, giving her formidable all in Captive.

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