Much to savor at Berlin


As 10 days of tragic chanteuses, sex workers, cyborgs, concentration camp counterfeiters, early AIDS victims, ancient Greek warriors and Nelson Mandela draw to a close, most of those who attended the 57th Berlin International Film Festival would call the festival a solid success. So the jury has its work cut out for it.

While there were a few duds In Competition, programmers found many challenging and unusual stories from around the world. Even when a movie like the opening-night film "La vie en rose" comes unhinged, it is held together by an unnervingly brilliant performance by Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf that certainly will dominate jury discussions about best actress honors at the Berlinale.

On the first full day of screenings, the festival gave us one of its best pictures, Cao Hamburger's "The Year My Parents Went on Vacation." It's a film about football, politics and Brazilian society in 1970, but it's also about a little boy, played with subtlety and determination by Michel Joelsas — more hints to the jury — trying to make sense of a senseless world. Whatever its fate Saturday, this fine film is surely headed for wide international exposure.

Another intriguing film rife with moral and political choices was Stefan Ruzowitzky's "The Counterfeiters." The German-Austrian film reveals a hitherto largely ignored Nazi conspiracy to fabricate British and U.S. money in concentration camps to undermine those economies. The fascinating focus here is on the moral dilemma of Jewish prisoners getting all the breaks so they can aid their enemy's war effort. This film also seems certain to enjoy considerable international distribution.

French veteran auteur Andre Techine brought one of his best films in a while, "The Witnesses," a tale that starts off in a romantic and comic mood, then turns sober and dramatic before an optimistic final reel. It's just the right approach to the early days of the AIDS epidemic, which captures how fast the ugliness crept up on everyone.

The problem for jury members with such films as "Counterfeiters" and "Witnesses" is that they represent ensemble acting at its finest. So how do you select only one performance to honor?

Sam Garbarski's crowd-pleaser "Irina Palm" gives British pop star Marianne Faithfull her best role ever as a middle-aged woman caught up in the sex trade in order to raise money for a life-saving operation for her grandson. The unlikely tale is carried off with great wit and charm and had the press-screening audience clapping and cheering.

Speaking of terrific female acting performances, Yu Nan, who can't disguise her beauty under bulky layers of Mongolian winter clothing, is a sheer force of nature in "Tuya's Marriage." Alternately funny and dramatic, Wang Quanan's Chinese film takes a hard look at modern-day Inner Mongolia, which has been turned into drained grasslands thanks to uncontrolled industrial growth. But the lasting impression one takes away is Yu's performance as a woman determined to marry a man to help support her ex-husband and two sons.

This year's jury under president Paul Schrader doesn't seem all that political, which might be bad news for the U.S. films In Competition, "The Good German" and "The Good Shepherd." Also, the Israeli film, "Beaufort," a story about Israeli soldiers in Lebanon in 2000, might similarly suffer from a jury looking for art, not controversy. We'll see.

Saverio Costanzo's "In Memory of Myself" is a narrowly focused look at a young man entering the novitiate to decide whether he wants to become a Catholic priest. It's a handsome piece of work, but the drama is all interior, and the film's slow pace will test the patience of most audiences.

Ryan Eslinger's joyless drama "When a Man Falls in the Forest" has star turns by executive producer Sharon Stone and Timothy Hutton, but it's a dire affair, with characters so undeveloped that their travails are of little interest. The two stars play an unhappily married couple, with Dylan Baker and Pruitt Taylor Vince as two forlorn former classmates. They whine a lot but to little effect.

Seemingly, every Berlinale competition suffers from one painfully minimalist Argentine film, usually starring Julio Chavez, that meanders here and there and ultimately nowhere. This year that film would be "The Other." Our only question is: Why?

Bad as it was, Park Chan-wook's "I'm a Cyborg, but That's OK" can perhaps be excused for its inclusion In Competition since it's a hot director having an off day. Less certain is why "Goodbye Bafana," a story about Mandela and his white jailer, found its way into Competition. At best, it's a TV movie in its presentation and adds virtually nothing to the cinematic examination of South Africa's now-defunct apartheid regime.

If programmers seem perplexed in filling out a complete dance card of worthy films for the Competition — which forces them to pad the section with "Other," "Cyborg," "Forest" and "Bafana" — here's a suggestion.

Documentaries are the hot ticket these days at international festivals, a fact not fully understood in Berlin. The festival programs good docus in the Panorama section, like Maria Yatskova's "Miss Gulag." So why not put some of these films into Competition and leave esoteric duds like "Other" to the Forum section?

Even Cannes in recent years has put documentaries and animation into its Competition section. The other alternative would be to create a separate competition category for docus as Sundance has done for years.

Berlinale sidebars did produce winners. Julie Delpy's very funny romantic comedy "2 Days in Paris," in Panorama, sees her jousting with the wonderfully accomplished Adam Goldberg as lovers in the capital of romance.

Yoji Yamada's Panorama entry "Love and Honor" is a winning and tender samurai tale of devotion tested by duty. Pepe Planitzer's ramshackle Perspekstive Deutsches Kino comedy "All Gone," about a trio of losers who struggle against everyday obstacles, has great charm. And Richard Trank's Berlinale Special documentary, "I Have Never Forgotten You — The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal," is a moving testament to the late Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter that will be viewed by generations to come.