The mood has been generally downbeat in old Berlin. As the sun continues to boycott the German capital, more cinematic bombs continue to bombard critics.
Despair has mostly been the defining theme of this year’s Berlinale. Even the most lighthearted film screened here involved murder (Yimou Zhang’s “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop ), depression (Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg ) and estranged fatherhood (Hans Petter Moland’s “A Somewhat Gentle Man ).
And then came one astounding film that proved to be a ray of sunshine in sunless Berlin. Sundance sensation “Exit through a Gift Shop – showing outside competition – was what everyone here seemed to need; a highly entertaining documentary about graffiti and the absurdity of art.
Directed by enigmatic British underground artist Bansky, the documentary starts off as a chronicle of modern history of graffiti, the biggest anti-establishment art movement since punk, and its current icons, including Bansky, the most iconic of all graffiti artists.
But this is not a film about Bansky, nor is it a straightforward portrait of the movement. This is the story of one quirky Frenchman named Thierry Guetta and his unexpected rise to stardom.
Before he became Los Angeles’ hottest artist, Guetta used to run a modest gift shop. Guetta was obsessed with video recording, spending the larger part of his life shooting everything that moves. Guetta eventually discovers graffiti and begins to develop a new addiction. As he becomes the official videographer of the movement, Guetta crosses paths with his idol, Bansky.
With plenty of energy and boundless determination, Guetta decides to become a graffiti artist. The second part of the film charts Guetta’s ascension to becoming one of Los Angeles’ hottest modern artists. There’s one catch though: Guetta is man of little talents, according to most artists at least.
Some critics regarded the film as a stunt; a new high-wire act from Bansky, but in spite of the absurdity of Guetta’s success, or perhaps because of it, it doesn’t seem to be quite so far-fetched given the implausibility of art.
The joke is not on the audiences, it’s on art connoisseurs who blindly embrace anything the media hypes. “Exit Shop is tremendously amusing and revealing, uplifting and cynical at the same time; the most insightful satire about modern art and the machine behind it.
Another film that won over critics was Nicole Holofcener’s “Please Give, a beautiful, subtle comedy boosted by a solid cast featuring regular collaborator Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt and the lovely Rebecca Hall. The film was also screened outside the competition.
Keener and Plat are a middle-aged Manhattan couple with a teen daughter frantic about being overweight. The pair is waiting for their cranky, old next-door neighbor to pass away so that they can expand their flat. Gradually, they start getting closer to their neighbor’s two granddaughters: Mary (Peet), a tanning saloon worker who can’t get over the fact that her ex-boyfriend left her for a younger clothing store clerk; and Rebecca (Hall), a sad, lonely radiology technician
The lives of the five intersect as they continue to look for happiness, each in their own way.
As in Holofcener’s best works, which includes “Walking and Talking and “Lovely & Amazing, she portrays her characters with effortless, Rohmer-like naturalism. The result is charming and moving, witty and touching. Holofcener loves her characters and she doesn’t hold back from showering them with affection. As grave as some of their flaws may be, audiences come to accept them.
Unlike her past films though, “Please Give is not a celebration of Holofcener’s beloved women; it’s a story about the elusive search for happiness, the role of others in this endless journey and the smallest things that make all the difference.
On the far end of the spectrum was Kôji Wakamatsu’s wartime drama “Caterpillar, the bleakest, most shocking picture Berlin has seen this year.
Set in World War II, the film centers on a wife of a soldier attempting to cope with her husband who lost all four limbs in the war. Traumatized by his memories of the war and his crimes, the soldier is transformed into an animal; eating, sleeping and having sex with his wife.
The wife can’t accept him but feels obliged to by her husband’s family and the town folks who refer to him as “War God.
Known for his pinku (Japanese softcore pornography) films “Ecstasy of the Angels and “Go, Go Second Time Virgin, Wakamatsu – who also produced
Nagisa Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses – has always been a provocateur. His last film, the more formative “United Red Army, was screened to great acclaim in Berlin’s Forum section.
In “Caterpillar, Wakamatsu returns to controversial terrain with a film best described as one loud affront to war; a bawdy answer to Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home and a misanthropic cousin to Dalton Trumbo’s 1971 “Johnny Got His Gun.
Abound with sex scenes between the soldier’s wife and her limbless husband, the film progresses with extreme emotional intensity that some viewers found unbearable, walking out in the middle of the screening. The film grows increasingly claustrophobic as the two begin to devour each other, psychologically and physically.
There’s not a hint of romanticism in Wakamatsu’s film; “Caterpillar is raw, uncompromising and cruel. The theme – no glory in war – has been channeled to death in dozens of films. Few though have treated this topic with such severity and relentlessness. “Caterpillar doesn’t make for a comfortable viewing, but certainly a worthwhile one.
Other films in competition were not as stellar. Benjamin Heisenberg’s “The Robber, a high-octane drama with excellent performances and a daring treatment hampered by run-of-the-mill execution. Based on a true story, the film centers on marathon athlete addicted to robbing banks.
Heisenberg adopts a detached stance from his subject, refusing to unveil his motivations or back-story. While most critics criticized him for taking up a tactic that denies full engagement with his protagonist, I found Heisenberg’s approach to his subject quite fascinating, creating a more existential conflict rather than barraging the audience with mundane psychological nonsense.
The problem is with Heisenberg’s toothless direction, which lacks both style and ingenuity. There are some remarkable scenes scattered here and there, and the Austrian backdrop is undeniably picturesque. But the film eventually falls flat, failing to build tangible tension and offering little thrill.
I’ve seen my fair share of bad films in the festival, but none so far has managed to topple Rafi Pitts’ “The Hunter, an inconsequential exercise in self-importance that left me cursing out loud as I left the theater.
The film centers on an ex-prisoner who decides to avenge his wife and daughter, killed by the police in a shootout between the former and a group of protestors, by randomly shooting a couple of cops. He’s then caught in a forest where he finds himself part of a cat-and-mouse between himself and his two captors.
The film’s press release deceived critics into believing that Pitts’ story contains hidden political and social metaphors, an allegory of sorts of the rising opposition in Iran. But that is far from the truth. It fact, it isn’t any one thing: neither a thriller nor a revenge drama or even a parable of the boiling dissent in Iran.
“The Hunter is a hollow, self-indulgent piece of pretentiousness made by a filmmaker palpably not interested in telling a story as much as attracting unwarranted attention for his modest cinematic skills.