The 57th Berlin Film Festival

By Gemunden, Gerd | Film Criticism, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

The 57th Berlin Film Festival


Gemunden, Gerd, Film Criticism


The Berlin Film Festival, held annually in February, has long laid claim to its position as second only to Cannes among the most important showcases for international features. Although the weather in the German capital is usually dreary this time of the year, the program is anything but. 2007's offering included over four hundred new films, an increased talent campus, a refurbished section for young cinema-goers, an even stronger presence of Hollywood stars (which ranged from Cate Blanchett and Matt Damon through Richard Gere and Sharon Stone to Steve Buscemi and John Waters), a strong sampling of European, Asian, and Latin American actors and actresses, directors, producers, and all kinds of aspiring young talents.

This year's competition included twenty-two features, among them The Good Shepherd and The Good German, which enjoyed their international premieres in Berlin, as well as Paul Schrader's The Walker, shown out of competition because its director also headed the international jury that awarded the coveted Bears. While Robert deNiro's feature about the CIA's role in the botched 1961 invasion of Cuba played to much critical and public acclaim, Soderbergh's Cold War Berlin feature got muted attention, faring only slightly better than in the US, where it was panned by critics and ignored by filmgoers. France led the way with four features in the competition: Jacque Rivette's Don't Touch the Axe/Ne touchez pas la hache, after a novella by Balzac, Andre Techine's The Witnesses/Les Temoins, a relationship drama, and Francois Ozon's Angel, his first English-language film about an aspiring writer in the early 20th century. The festival opened with La vie en rose, Oliver Dahan's bio-pic about Edith Piaf, told in multiple temporal layers that move smoothly between 1959, the year the action opens, and Piaf's impoverished upbringing in the suburb of Belleville. Marion Cotillard embodies Piaf from age twenty to her death in her late forties with verve and pizzazz, skillfully portraying a life of pain and success, triumph and tragedy, always surrounded by scandal and medical crises. Although the film rarely transcends the conventions of a genre that highlights a rise from the gutters, Cotillard's performance brilliantly captures Piaf's raspy voice, her streetwise attitude, and the loneliness of the songbird who, as no other chanteuse, embodied what it means to be French.

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All in all, the competition may not have been as strong as in recent years, but there was a clear stylistic trend. It was the year of films with little dialogue, restrained visible emotion, and distanced acting, where drama was signaled through minute gestures, fleeting glances, and narratives that demanded active participation from the audience to fathom character motivation, plot turns, and give meaning to open ends. High melodrama, convoluted storylines, or over-the-top performances were few and far between. Thus, remarkable performances could frequently be found in less than remarkable films. The Argentinian film, The Other/El Otro (Ariel Rotter), is a case in point. A traveling businessman, played by Julio Chavez (known to festival-goers for his lead in last year's The Custodian), assumes the identity of a man who passes away in the seat next to him during a bus ride. The protagonist's stay in a southern small town provides him with the opportunity to slip into new identities until he returns to his normal life in Buenos Aires as suddenly as he had left it behind. The film is intriguing but not involving, choosing to explain too little rather than too much, but Chavez's bravura performance--for which he won the Silver Bear for best actor--keeps the story together.

Similarly, the Brazilian entry for the competition, The Year My Parents' Went on Vaction/O ano em que meus pais sairam de ferias, stressed the repeated longing glances through windows of its young protagonist Mauro, a twelve-year old boy who has been left in the care of his grandfather by his parents; they tell the boy that they are going on vacation, but in reality they seek cover because their efforts to confront the dictatorship have put them at risk. …

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