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Critic's Analysis: Berlin Film Festival Lineup

Nader and Simin, A Separation
Courtesty of Berlinale 2011
"Nader and Simin, A Separation"

Early forecasts of a lackluster event proved untrue thanks to such popular titles as Golden Bear winner "Nader and Simin," Miranda July's "The Future" and Ralph Fiennes' impressive directing bow, "Coriolanus."

BERLIN -- Does the Berlin International Film Festival have an image problem? And if not, why did the Berlinale's moderately strong Competition category get so put down from the very start, before anyone had seen a single film?

The first days of the Feb. 10-20 event were full of dire prognosticating and much head-shaking, with such comments overheard as, "I read the catalog last night, and there are only three films I want to see in the whole festival." Another favorite: "The selection looks like Rotterdam." That apparently referred to the lack of high-profile titles and what many perceived as an increase in extreme art-house fare -- the kind of small, independent film for which the Rotterdam Film Festival, unspooling just before Berlin, is famous.

The presence of Bela Tarr's beautiful, bleak and slow-moving The Turin Horse, clocking in at 146 minutes, typified the trend, winning the Grand Prix from the jury presided over by Isabella Rossellini.

Contrary to expectations, however, the official selection held many happy surprises, including director Asghar Farhadi's outstanding Iranian entry Nader and Simin: A Separation, which won the Golden Bear for best film and two Silver Bears for the film's acting ensemble. It also swept the film market like wildfire, racking up sales around the world.

Other popular titles were the Albania-set The Forgiveness of Blood, earning the best script nod for U.S. director Joshua Marston and Andamion Murataj; Alexander Mindadze's Chernobyl story Innocent Saturday, with its frantic first hour; Miranda July's The Future; and Ralph Fiennes' impressive directing bow Coriolanus, shot like a modern war film and charged by dynamic performances from Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave.

Factoring in Wim Wenders' splendid 3D dance film Pina, which bowed Out of Competition in the presence of federal chancellor Angela Merkel and federal president Christian Wulff, and early forecasts of a lackluster festival simply proved untrue.

Yet Berlin did have a problem finding big titles this year. A sure sign was the fact there were a scant 16 films in competition, and some of those looked upgraded from Panorama. Cannes' hegemony, which seems to grow year by year, undoubtedly led to the French festival's hoarding many good titles. However, an indigenous defect is the committee structure of Berlin's selection, a democratic forum that lacks a clear programming voice.

The Panorama sidebar was, as ever, a mixed bag. Elite Squad 2 found admirers here, as did Celine Sciamma's hot-selling Tomboy, but it was Spanish director Iciar Bollain's much fawned-over Even the Rain that took home the Audience Award.

This year's Forum section, normally a fail-safe playground for festival programmers, was not up to snuff, with only a couple of notable standouts -- the new films by James Benning (Twenty Cigarettes) and Stephane Lafleur (Familiar Ground) -- and an occasional successful blast like the Congo-set gangsta romp Viva Riva!

The paucity of strong Asian titles in Competition and other sections didn't go unnoticed. The only entry mustering critical support was the South Korean breakup elegy Come Rain, Come Shine. Other offerings from Asia, especially independent films, looked like wholesale recycling of last year's Pusan International Film Festival (10 titles) or PIA Film Festival (three Japanese titles, all of them assembly-line indies about social misfits).

That 2010 was a bumper year for Asian films at Cannes and Venice may mean that the turnover is not quick enough for Berlin. Two titles that ought to have generated more discussion were the 278-minute Heaven's Story by pink movie master Takahisa Zeze and the culinary delight Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

The festival's greatest source of energy, as far as the professionals are concerned, was Beki Probst's tightly run film market. There was a lot in the pipeline this year: 741 films, of which 570 were market premieres, and they all seemed to have their sights set on going to Cannes. Now more a festival hub than a satellite, the market ended much too quickly with everybody in a hurry to go home while festgoers wandered forlornly around empty stands on the penultimate day.

Maggie Lee, Neil Young and Ray Bennett contributed to this report.