Mortality rates as major Berlinale theme


More Berlin Film Festival news and reviews on pages 6, 7, 32.

BERLIN — A filmgoer who comes to the Berlin International Film Festival directly from Sundance experiences culture shock. This has little to do with the differences between a festival that is the premier showcase of American independent talent compared with one that concentrates on international fare. The real disparity stems from a generation gap.

Sundance overflows with young writers and directors who have embarked on their first adventures in storytelling. Not surprisingly, their themes revolve around coming of age, first love, family crises, sexual identity and problems at school — along with imitations of Hollywood movies.

Berlin for the most part programs films from seasoned veterans. These older filmmakers have more wide-ranging interests. They explore historical topics and social problems, marital failures, midlife crises and the process of aging. Their films show a greater acceptance of life's material limitations, often focus on characters that seek spiritual meaning to their lives and frankly face the stark reality of death.

This has never been truer this year as several competition films dramatized people's confrontations with mortality, either as they find themselves nearing the end of their lives or in the anguished aftermath of a loved one's death. For me, the two most touching films in competition dealt directly with death.

In Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke's "Lake Tahoe," a son and peripherally his family must process grief over the loss of the father. But this is not clear until the film is nearly an hour old. Eimbcke's dramatic strategy is to withhold this information to concentrate on a comic, Jim Jarmusch-flavored, daylong odyssey of a young boy across a small town that seems locked in a permanent siesta as he searches for an auto part for his damaged car.

Only after our realization of the anguish that hangs over his head do we see that his calmness and seeming nonchalance in the face of failure at every turn masks much inner turmoil. His encounters with an aging mechanic, a young mother and a martial arts fanatic serve to reconnect him with life, perhaps against his own wishes.

In Doris Dorrie's "Cherry Blossoms — Hanami" from Germany, a grieving spouse goes to Japan to seek Zen-like wisdom to reconnect spiritually with his lost wife. In his relationship with a young homeless woman — who also is working through the loss of her mother the year before with Butoh dancing — the older man, blithely unaware of his own impending death, finds inner peace and harmony. Dorrie's ending has astonishing power that resonates long after the lights come up.

In Antonello Grimaldi's "Quiet Chaos," a father (Nanni Moretti) and his daughter must overcome the loss of the mother. He impulsively waits outside his daughter's school for an entire day and then decides to continue doing so for the foreseeable future. He soon attracts co-workers and family members who share with him their own pain and use him as their sounding board. The man starts to look at the world with fresh eyes and a recovered spirit.

In Isabel Coixet's "Elegy," based on a Philip Roth novel, an aging New York intellectual (Ben Kingsley) considers then rejects the thought of sharing his declining years with a much younger woman (Penelope Cruz). The film is a real wet noodle, though, as the point of view remains steadfastly with the self-absorbed, egotistical professor and fails to give viewers one reason why the beautiful woman would contemplate a life with this windbag.

Finnish director Petri Kotwica's "Black Ice" features a man suffering from midlife crises in the form of an extramarital fling with — again — a much younger woman, only here the focus is refreshingly on the women. The wife secretly befriends the mistress to take her measure, see what her husband sees in her and, not incidentally, to try out a new life for herself.

Asian directors Wang Xiaoshuai ("In Love We Trust") and Hong Sangsoo ("Night and Day"), both in their 40s, deal with a midlife crisis as well, seeing how each affects personal relationships.

The theme of family dysfunction prevailed in the American competition films. Of course, dysfunctional families can be found in all international cinemas. Yet U.S. filmmakers now dwell on this theme to the point of obsession. Little wonder. The country itself is riven by political, religious and cultural divides. Americans today are one big dysfunctional family. They no longer know how to talk to one another, to debate differences and admit to shortcomings. An ugly anger has entered the zeitgeist, and this hit home in several American films in Berlin.

Lance Hammer's "Ballast," following its multiple-award Sundance debut, watches the extremely painful process through which a black family in the hardscrabble Mississippi Delta must work through a suicide death, another attempted suicide and mutual recriminations in order to achieve a spiritual and psychological balance to their lives. In contrast to other Berlin filmmakers, Hammer is a relatively young man and this is his first feature, so it will be interesting to observe his development after such an impressive debut.

Dennis Lee's "Fireflies in the Garden" gives us a squabbling Midwest family with a domineering control-freak for a father and a grown son thoroughly poisoned by his father's callousness. The death of the mother — my God, death really is a theme this year — brings everything home to roost: All the buttoned-up hostilities and arguments boil over once more in a story that, unfortunately, reeks of soap opera rather than incisive drama.

One could even argue that Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" features a dysfunctional family and a spiritual divide. In the film, a father and adopted son grow increasingly estranged as greed overwhelms the father's life purpose. The oilman's counterpart is the son of a family he once defrauded who becomes an evangelist. But the preacher is no more sincere in his pursuit of heaven than the oilman is in his pursuit of Mammon.

The Berlinale finally caught up to the rest of the festival world by programming its first documentary in competition, Errol Morris' disappointing "Standard Operating Procedure." The Festival de Cannes made the move several years ago, but until this year, Berlin has stubbornly refused to acknowledge the vitality and artistic achievement of documentaries worldwide.

This goes to the heart of what ails the Berlinale. A certain timidity and a propensity toward safe rather than daring choices dominate the selections year after year. My THR colleague Maggie Lee, who has a deep knowledge of Asian cinema, was surprised by her first visit to the festival. Competition selections from Asia, she felt, represent "safe choices, technically excellent but not so vibrant and exciting. I have seen so many more accessible, enjoyable and well-produced Asian films that didn't make it to any of the Berlinale sections."

Films such as the Weinstein Co.'s right-wing vigilante movie "Elite Squad" and the long and lightweight Korean entry "Night and Day" did not belong in competition. And many felt a film like Eran Riklis' wise and poignant "Lemon Tree," a simple tale of a Palestinian woman taking on the might of the Israeli military in order to save her lemon grove, did belong in competition rather than in Panorama.

Finally, the Forum section needs rethinking. Too many extremely low budget and aesthetically wearisome films that lack any true originality get swept into that category. It has become a section for poseurs.