Critics' Notebook: Berlinale 2012

6:00 AM PST 02/21/2012 by Deborah Young , David Rooney
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

Those looking for this year's "A Separation" were disappointed, but there were still discoveries to be made.

Few predicted that a docudrama shot in a maximum-security prison would win the Golden Bear at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival, but festivals are famous for overturning the odds.

Built around a performance of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar inside the walls of Rome's Rebibbia Prison, Caesar Must Die marked a return to the raw, early form of Italian veterans Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. It clearly appealed to the jury headed by Mike Leigh and including actors Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jake Gyllenhaal.

It was one of three Berlin prize-winners picked up for U.S. distribution during the festival by Jeff Lipsky's Adopt Films. The others were German entry Barbara, which earned Christian Petzold the Silver Bear for best director; and Sister from French-Swiss director Ursula Meier, which took home a special award from the jury.

Though red-carpet style and blinding paparazzi flashes are not typical Berlinale high points, this year attracted the likes of Angelina Jolie accompanied by Brad Pitt, who flew in to support her directorial debut about the war in Bosnia. In the Land of Blood and Honey was respectfully received -- notable at a festival attended heavily by Balkan filmgoers -- and she was presented with the Cinema for Peace prize from Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei at the festival's charity gala.

The big news, though, was Meryl Streep, who was this year's winner of an honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement. At her press conference on Valentine's Day, she was showered with gifts by adoring fans, including a specially designed Russian matryoshka doll bearing the faces of her most famous film roles. There was, of course, a special screening of The Iron Lady.

Historical dramas were rife both in and out of competition, attracting some of the festival's top acting talent. A trio of actresses on their way up, Diane Kruger, Virginie Ledoyen and an intensely good Lea Seydoux were spotlighted in a provocative film about the last days of the French court, Benoit Jacquot's Farewell, My Queen. Meanwhile, a Danish newcomer still in acting school, Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, got a major career kick-start by winning the best actor prize for his role as eccentric King Christian VII in Nicolaj Arcel's A Royal Affair. Pre-bought for the U.S. by Magnolia and already sold to most major territories worldwide, the film also stars Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) and Swedish up-and-comer Alicia Vikander. A classy but not starchy, old-style European costumer, Arcel's film was generally preferred to the French drama. It also landed the screenwriting prize.

Accompanied by the squeals of a throng of German Twi-hards, Robert Pattinson was on hand with co-star Christina Ricci for the world premiere of Bel Ami, a literary costume drama based on Guy de Maupassant's novel. The British production confirmed low critical expectations.

Though it was a good year for stars, the festival's real raison d'etre is to unveil emerging talent. The general consensus, however, was that the 2012 lineup lacked a unanimous hit on the order of last year's success story -- and Golden Bear winner -- A Separation. That domestic drama by Asghar Farhadi went on to be nominated for two Academy Awards, and he was back in Berlin on the official jury this year.

Ira Sachs' gay relationship drama, Keep the Lights On, which first screened at Sundance, went over well, and James Marsh's Sundance premiere, Shadow Dancer, continued gathering admirers. But in general, the response was underwhelming to previously unveiled films like Haywire, Young Adult, The Flowers of War or The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. All big titles on paper, they generated far less interest than the festival's premieres.

Of the latter, Stephen Elliott's porn-industry story Cherry, starring James Franco, and Billy Bob Thornton's Vietnam-era Southern-fried family drama Jayne Mansfield's Car had a pedigree that would have been natural fits for Sundance. But tepid critical response in Berlin helped explain their conspicuous Park City absences.

Given a warmer welcome was the divisive but fascinating Francine, a small, ultra-naturalistic character study anchored by Melissa Leo's raw performance.

If many heavy-hitters and big-name directors are holding out for a Cannes slot, it did make room for a handful of discoveries, including two stand-out human-rights films based on current events, both marking major career leaps for their directors: War Witch, Canadian filmmaker Kim Nguyen's chilling but beautifully shot depiction of child soldiers in Africa, illuminated by 15-year-old Congolese best actress winner Rachel Mwanza in her screen debut; and the Hungarian film Just the Wind, based on the real-life story of a murderous campaign against Central European gypsies. Directed by Bence Fliegauf, it won the Grand Jury Prize.

There was also loud buzz out of the critical hive around Portuguese director Miguel Gomes' Tabu, an entertaining black-and-white, 16mm romp through film history. And Meier confirmed her talent in her second film, Sister, the story of two poor kids who steal skis from a luxury Alpine resort.

The strength of these relatively unheralded filmmakers made it all the more unexpected when the Berlin jury chose to bestow top honors on the Tavianis, the competition's sole representatives of Europe's old-master generation.

Classic documentaries featuring great subjects rocketed to the top of the critics' polls. One of the most commercial Berlin premieres was Marley, the bio of reggae legend Bob Marley. German veteran Werner Herzog returned to his obsession with capital punishment in America in four involving, much-discussed episodes of Death Row. Also highly admired was Side by Side, an engrossing doc directed by Christopher Kenneally about the digital revolution. Co-produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves, the cineaste's delight is packed with major-name interviewees, boosting its profile.

In terms of running themes, the festival was oddly inundated with films dealing with imprisonment and confinement -- from those of the Tavianis and Herzog to Captive, director Brillante Mendoza's disappointing account of abductions in the Philippines, and the well-liked documentary Bestiaire, which depicts zoos as prisons.

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INTERNATIONAL JURY PRIZE WINNERS

  • GOLDEN BEAR: BEST FILM -- Caesar Must Die
    Directed by Paolo & Vittorio Taviani
  • SILVER BEAR: GRAND JURY PRIZE -- Just the Wind
    Directed by Bence Fliegauf
  • SILVER BEAR: BEST DIRECTOR: -- Christian Petzold, Barbara
  • SILVER BEAR: BEST ACTRESS -- Rachel Mwanza, War Witch
    Directed by Kim Nguyen
  • SILVER BEAR: BEST ACTOR -- Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, A Royal Affair\
    Directed by Nikolaj Arcel
  • SILVER BEAR: OUTSTANDING ARTISTIC ACHIEVEMENT -- Lutz Reitemeier, cinematographer, White Deer Plain
    Directed by Wang Quan'an
  • SILVER BEAR: BEST SCRIPT: Nikolaj Arcel, Rasmus Heisterberg, A Royal Affair
  • SILVER BEAR: SPECIAL AWARD -- Sister
    Directed by Ursula Meier
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