Marking veteran festival director Dieter Kosslick’s final year heading up the Berlinale, this year’s line up boasted a customarily idiosyncratic body of films in competition and sidebar. It was an arguably less controversial line-up of winners than last year. Nevertheless, the overall selection and programme reflected a typically uncompromising and bright future vision of World Cinema and Art House, even as some of the best titles skewed towards despair in both subject matter and aesthetic.
Some of the best films sat outside of Competition. In Rodd Rathjen’s gripping thriller Buoyancy, a young Cambodian man is unwittingly forced into slavery on a Thai fishing boat. Lured by the promise of better pay and a steady job at sea, Chakra (a superb Sarm Heng) finds himself locked on board a ship and forced to work for no pay and at the mercy of a sadistic crew who think nothing of killing exhausted workers. Comparable in intensity and film style to Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Prayer Before Dawn, Buoyancy moved with breathtaking pace, restlessly gliding camerawork and pounding score, building to a violent and emotional crescendo. A remarkable debut feature that stood out in Panorama alongside Alejandro Landes’ acclaimed Monos, fresh from the raves at Sundance.
Perhaps it’s painting too grim a picture of the Berlinale to highlight yet another harrowing and unflinching vision of human waste and cruelty. But it is worth also flagging the merits of Agnieszka Holland’s Competition entry Mr Jones, an unflinching historical drama starring James Norton. Based on the experiences of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (Norton) in the 1930s, as one of the first to expose Stalinist famine in the remoter regions of Soviet Russia, before his murder likely at the hands of Soviet agents, the film brought down to earth realism and a surprising lack of sentimentality to its vivid and traumatically detailed exploration of a historic atrocity. Jones provided the inspiration for Orwell’s allegorical novel ‘Animal Farm’, and his experience transitioning from naive idealist to crusading whistleblower was handled beautifully by Norton in his first major film lead, alongside ironically deployed extracts from Orwell’s novel in voiceover.
In rather more stylised genre mode was Claudio Giovannesi’s lavish Neopolitan gangster thriller Piranhas, based on the book by ‘Gomorrah’ author Roberto Saviano. Giovannesi impressed with his emotional crime thriller Fiore at Cannes 2016, and this new production took the breathtaking pacing and romanticism of that debut and applied it to a grander, more operatic scale. The story of strong bonds of friendship between young Neopolitians lured into a life of Mafia gangsterism and intimidation, Piranhas brought gloss, formal flourish and fun to a well-worn tale.
Another genre treat was French thriller Who You Think I Am, starring Juliette Binoche, which sat proudly out of competition. The story of a woman who deceives a younger man into falling in love with her online by posing as a younger woman, the film combined just the right mix of good acting, eroticism and a lurid sense of fun to deliver an absurdly entertaining thriller. Shades of the 90’s erotic thriller with a hi-tech edge, with Binoche clearly having a ball, this film had a delicious edge to it.
Golden Bear-winner Synonymes brought admirable, head-scratching intensity to the story of a troubled Israeli at sea in bourgeois Paris with only the faintest grasp on the French language. Breathtakingly shot and full of life and fun. But it was a German film that made arguably the biggest emotional impact in competition. System Clasher borrowed from the low-key observational style of Loach and the Dardennes to tell the story of a troubled child dealing with her own violent outbursts and trying to fit into a social care support system apparently weighted against her future. With admirable lack of hand-wringing and some lovely formal flourishes, the film boasted an astonishing break out performance from Helena Sengel in the lead and a final pay off rich in ambiguity, but crucially optimism, a breath of fresh of air brought to a subject matter that could so easily have lapsed into depressing bathos.
Several striking documentaries played to acclaim, including a film by and about meme-friendly cinematic icon Agnès Varda, Varda By Agnès. But for cinephiles, arguably the biggest treat was What She Said: The Art Of Pauline Kael, a traditional doc about the iconic critic which utilised a wealth of archive, glitzy interview subjects and surprising candour to explore the life and work of one of the most important film writers of the twentieth century. A treat for fans and newcomers alike and a paean to a perhaps lost art of unflinching film criticism.