Berlinale Diary: 'Tabu,' 'Barbara,' 'Sister'

Posted by · 8:18 pm · February 19th, 2012

BERLIN – After having spent the bulk of my Berlinale awards report complaining about the jury’s curious choice of Golden Bear winner, I’m more pleased than ever that I waited until my final dispatch to dig into my three favorite films of the festival. For this year’s fest, despite what you may have heard from grumpier attendees, was not one that deserved to be sent off with a sneer.

Typically uneven, but inventively programmed and shrewdly paced, it seemed less than usual like a lineup feeding off Cannes and Venice’s scraps than one built to its own smaller, funkier agenda. (Yes, at least one Competition entry, Brillante Mendoza’s excitingly divisive “Captive,” was turned down by both Croisette and Lido selectors last year — but more fool them, I say.) When one smart UK critic tweeted yesterday that he clearly hadn’t missed anything by not attending the Berlinale this year, I couldn’t resist replying, “Well, except for a number of excellent films.” The success stories of Berlin this year may not have been audible from a distance, but the festival will quietly claim delayed credit as they slowly trickle through to international arthouses.

One critic felt sufficiently impelled to underline the value of his being there as to suggest those who weren’t had missed a seismic evolutionary shift: “There is cinema before ‘Tabu,'” he said of Miguel Gomes’s lavishly (and justly) acclaimed FIPRESCI prizewinner. “And there is cinema after.” On the one hand, that’s pretty undeniable: I can attest to the fact that “Tabu” certainly didn’t destroy cinema. As I live and breathe, “This Means War” is in theaters right now. On the other, suggesting that a black-and-white Portuguese puzzle picture — one that will no doubt be seen be fewer people than bought the last Russell Crowe album — is the film to shift our collective understanding of the entire medium is the kind of emptily tunnelled statement that makes many regular moviegoers wonder what critics are even for.

In the moment, however, it’s almost possible to see what about “Tabu” would induce such dazed, irrational rapture: a sweet, sustained swoon of a film that runs the gamut from deadpan social satire to guileless golden-age romance, it’s at once like nothing and everything you’ve seen before. The title isn’t coincidentally pinched from F.W. Murnau’s 1931 silent “Tabu: A Story of the South Seas,” a glistening, Polynesia-set slice of Hollywood exotica, detailing the corruption of native passion by Western cultural interference, from which Gomes’s film further borrows its post-colonial politics and two-chapter structure. 

Murnau’s film is split into two halves: “Paradise” and “Paradise Lost,” marking the blissful-then-broken union between two South Sea islanders who flee tribal oppression by sailing to a French colony. Gomes’s film is also bisected with those titles, but the order is reversed, even if the chronology isn’t. Tracing in delayed, concentrated flashback the dissolution of a heated affair between 1950s Portuguese colonialists in Africa, it’s less a formal pastiche of Murnau’s film than a deceptively contemporary essay on our own history of cultural appropriation.

Or perhaps not at all. Gomes’s cinema is an agreeably permeable one, inviting the viewer to make quite as much or as little sense of the proceedings as he wishes. It certainly doesn’t lead us on much in the spacily comic and tonally testing first half, a deliberately off-key stretch of wall-eyed absurdism set in present-day Lisbon, wherein lonely middle-aged spinster Pilar (Teresa Madruga) fusses over her elderly neighbor Aurora (Laura Soveral), a coldly imperious but dementia-afflicted dowager plagued with a gambling addiction, racist delusions that her black maid is practising voodoo against her and inscrutable memories of a pet crocodile. Gomes allows scenes to unfold with prickly, pause-laden stiltedness; any connection to a silvery, stylized prologue set in East Africa is all but impossible to discern as the film threatens to remain as maddeningly opaque as the director’s 2008 acquired-taste critical pet “Our Beloved Month of August.”

At the apparent point of no return, however, the old woman’s death ushers in “Paradise,” a woozy, poetically narrated but diegetically wordless vision of her salad days as a Moçambiquan farm wife told from the wistful perspective of a stranger at her funeral. (“She had a farm in Africa,” he explains, adding a certain Oscar-winning National Geographic shampoo commercial to its catholic list of cinematic winks.)  The film’s palette may be monochrome throughout, but in every other tonal respect, this shift is equivalent to switching from black-and-white to color: the characters’ motives and backstories slot neatly into place, emotions become nakedly readable, the rhythm of the piece sways in time as the filmmaking becomes progressively drunk on its own beauty.

From here on out, we’re in art-soap “White Mischief” territory, as the young Aurora (Ana Moreira) is easily lured from her marital bed by incandescently dashing Italian rogue Gianluca (Carloto Cotta, whose spiritual resemblance to Errol Flynn has been noted by more than one critic), and all expected anguish ensues. Heightened classicism lent quirk and feeling by the elegantly worded voiceover, “Paradise” puts the stiff chill of the film’s first half, with its flashes of lingering hurt and prejudice, into context — while remaining, on its own terms, the single most romantic thing I’ve seen in forever.

Somehow both densely academic and dumbly sensual in its charms, reflective of a cinematic diet that spans Murnau and Lucrecia Martel, “Tabu” is singularly beguiling, and beguilingly singular. All that, and it features a Portuguese-language version of The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” that will bring tears to your eyes. Distributors, please.

If the joy of “Tabu” lies in its structural skips and swirls, it’s the still, centered discipline of Christian Petzold’s “Barbara” that impresses most — at the risk of invoking bland cultural stereotypes, this gravely humorous, sourly affecting character-study-as-thriller is as quintessentially, well, German a film as you’ll see all year. Across such similarly stoic films as “Yella” and his “Postman Always Rings Twice” riff “Jerichow,” Petzold has established a subtly distinctive brand of deliberate containment, but “Barbara” is perhaps his most expansive, deeply etched film yet: a study of social and self-isolation across the fraught political borders of 1980 East Germany  that only incrementally reveals itself as a taciturn love story, it mines the same drably underlit history of crossover hit “The Lives of Others” with more teasingly ambiguous results.  

In a performance of tremendous gravity and wit that would likely have earned her Best Actress honors if she hadn’t won just four years ago for equally compelling work in “Yella,” Petzold’s muse of sorts, Nina Hoss, plays the the title character: a reserved Berlin doctor demoted to a lesser position at a country hospital in the German Democratic Republic after an unspecified professional infraction. As she steadfastly refuses to bond with her co-workers — “Berlin,” they sneer, as if that one word encapsulates her entire character — it’s left to head doctor Andre (an excellent Ronald Zehrfeld) to chip away at her defenses, as she secretly plots a cross-border escape.

The film grows unexpectedly plotty as a pair of troubled patients crucially propel the drama in the later stages, but Petzold never overplays his hand stylistically, daring to keep the pace unnervingly moderate even as incidents pile up, patiently allowing the camera to drink in each yellowed corner of the musty period production design as Hoss’s brilliant, breakable stare meets it head-on. When Petzold unexpectedly signs off proceedings with the creamy disco surge of Chic’s “At Last I Am Free” in the closing credits, you can practically hear the cast and crew’s exhalations. 

Compared to these two exactingly crafted arthouse statements, Ursula Meier’s “Sister — an ill-fitting English title for a film principally carried by a 12-year-old boy — feels like a fleeter, more on-the-fly achievement until a mild mid-film twist announces a turn into delicate emotional territory. Even when the narrative bruises more easily, however, there’s a jazzy restlessness to Meier’s direction that keeps both austerity and sentimentality at bay. Many might cry heresy, but this briskly funny, softly moving study of near-feral youth is, for me, the film so many critics see in the Dardennes’ “The Kid With a Bike.” 

Keen-eyed youngster Kacey Mottet Klein plays Simon, a resourceful young punk with elastic moral standards who, in the alleged absence of his parents, supports himself by stealing and reselling wealthy tourists’ equipment at the Swiss ski resort near the grim valley tower block he calls home. He lives with his apparent older sister and guardian Louise (Lea Seydoux), a workshy boyfriend-hopper who may have an even hazier sense of self-accountability than the boy; the film cleverly keeps the shape and proximity of their relationship in flux from beginning to end, questioning standard notions of family and necessity as the full limitations of their domestic situation become apparent.

It’s a playful but quietly aching everyday survival drama, beautifully played by the two leads. Seydoux, visibly delighted to be given a slightly grubby, threadbare character after a run of porcelain perfection, hits an early-career peak, while Klein (who starred in Meier’s previous feature, the rewarding but comparatively unpolished “Home”) is a genuine find: quick, intuitive, unafraid to play up to either the character’s stroppiness or intelligence. (There are sharp supporting turns, too, from Gillian Anderson and Martin Compston as initially sympathetic foreigners Simon encounters at the resort.)

Rather like the performances, there’s more finesse in Meier’s freestyle than initially meets the eye: it helps, of course, to hire Claire Denis’s favorite DP, the masterfully offhand Agnes Godard, to play her deft tricks of light on this sunbleached stretch of the Alps. Long may this partnership continue.

And it’s on that happy note that I conclude this year’s Berlinale coverage; I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have. Some extra festival reviews can also be found under my Variety byline, including Matthias Glasner’s Competition entry “Mercy,” an overworked but effectively acted family melodrama with more than a touch of Susanne Bier about it, and “Calm at Sea,” a handsome if slightly stolid French Resistance drama that represents a respectable comeback effort for German veteran Volker Schlondorff.    

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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