Final day coverage of the 68th Berlin International Film Festival with reviews of Daughter of MineMugTransitThe Heiresses, and My Brother’s Name Is Robert and He Is an Idiot

Daughter of Mine (Figlia Mia)

68th Berlin International Film Festival

Vit­to­ria (Sara Casu) is a red-haired nine-year-old girl grow­ing up with her adop­tive par­ents in a re­mote vil­lage of Sar­dinia. Her fos­ter moth­er Tina (Va­le­ria Goli­no) has been in con­tact with the girl’s al­co­holic birth moth­er An­gel­i­ca (Alba Rohrwach­er) for a long time, vis­it­ing her of­ten at the woman’s run­down farm where she lives with her hors­es and a dog. Now that An­gel­i­ca is fac­ing evic­tion af­ter hav­ing ac­cu­mu­lat­ed an enor­mous debt, she has de­cid­ed to va­cate her farm in one month and move to the Ital­ian main­land. But when she asks Tina to take Vit­to­ria to see her, the girl’s cu­rios­i­ty brings An­gel­i­ca clos­er to her daugh­ter than Tina would want.

Fo­cus­ing pri­mar­i­ly on the sto­ry she wants to tell, Lau­ra Bis­puri di­rects Daugh­ter of Mine with an es­sen­tial­ly nat­u­ral­is­tic, mat­ter-of-fact ap­proach, us­ing a grainier im­age, elon­gat­ed shots and a hand­held cam­era. The film also re­lies on strong per­for­mances, and while Casu plays Vit­to­ria as a typ­i­cal­ly cu­ri­ous girl who be­comes fas­ci­nat­ed with Angelica’s high spir­its, Goli­no con­veys all the love and af­fec­tion that Tina has for the girl, mak­ing us un­der­stand her fear that she may be like her birth moth­er (a re­sem­blance em­pha­sized by their hair col­or) — which lets us for­give her des­per­ate at­tempt to “cure” her daugh­ter and ex­pose what a “whore” An­gel­i­ca is.

But it is Rohrwach­er who stands out here, prov­ing again she is a per­fect ac­tress to em­body un­sta­ble char­ac­ters like the one she played in Hun­gry Hearts (2014). Im­petu­ous and volatile, An­gel­i­ca is quick to kick her dog and daugh­ter away af­ter los­ing her tem­per — only to be full of love to­wards them when they come back, as if noth­ing hap­pened — and it’s a tes­ti­mo­ny to Rohrwacher’s tal­ent how An­gel­i­ca gains our sym­pa­thy and pity even as she risks Vittoria’s life on a greedy whim and er­rat­i­cal­ly blames her for her own prob­lems.

Still, de­spite the great per­for­mances, Daugh­ter of Mine reach­es a frus­trat­ing cli­max when Tina in­ex­plic­a­bly fig­ures out that Vit­to­ria is in dan­ger (in­clud­ing where she is), and the end­ing feels more like a sil­ly cop-out than a prop­er res­o­lu­tion for the con­flict be­tween the two moth­ers. And that is such a shame con­sid­er­ing all the ef­fort and tal­ent in­volved up to this point.

Mug (Twarz)

Like Mał­gorza­ta Szu­mows­ka’s In the Name of (2013), the plot of Mug is sim­ple: Jacek (Ma­teusz Koś­ciukiewicz) is a long-haired, beard­ed and hand­some young man who loves heavy met­al and his girl­friend Dag­mara (Mal­go­rza­ta Gorol). Work­ing his mus­cles on a con­struc­tion site where the world’s largest stat­ue of Je­sus is be­ing built, he lives an easy­go­ing, care­free life in a main­ly con­ser­v­a­tive com­mu­ni­ty. But a hor­ri­ble ac­ci­dent at work rad­i­cal­ly changes every­thing when his face is left com­plete­ly dis­fig­ured and he be­comes the first per­son in Poland to have a face trans­plant, which forces him through a deep ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis.

The film’s in­ten­tions can be grasped right in the first scene, when we are in­formed by a ti­tle card that this sto­ry takes place in “NOWHERE” and we wit­ness a fiery mob of half-naked peo­ple bat­tling one an­oth­er like blood­thirsty an­i­mals in an un­der­wear stam­pede sale at a de­part­ment store. Like­wise, Jacek’s fam­i­ly is de­pict­ed as a group of dis­agree­able peo­ple who are con­stant­ly at one another’s throats, while his work­mates also fight all the time. It’s clear that Szu­mows­ka wants to paint a very neg­a­tive pic­ture of the in­hab­i­tants of this place as a bunch of racist and sex­ist Chris­tians who ca­su­al­ly make of­fen­sive jokes about Mus­lims and gyp­sies.

But the prob­lem is that, by some­how ref­er­enc­ing Franz Kafka’s The Meta­mor­pho­sis, es­pe­cial­ly with a fam­i­ly din­ner where Jacek’s en­tire fam­i­ly looks re­pelled by the way he eats af­ter the ac­ci­dent, Mug doesn’t leave much room for nu­ance. This is made worse by Dag­mara prov­ing to be such a self­ish, shal­low per­son, and by a de­spi­ca­ble priest who steals the mon­ey of do­na­tions and wants to hear the spicy de­tails of oth­er people’s sex­u­al lives — al­though, on the oth­er hand, the con­struc­tion of the stat­ue is a de­light­ful irony, and prej­u­dice is clev­er­ly shown to mat­ter only when it hits home.

Stum­bling also in the way it di­rects our eyes to se­lec­tive­ly fo­cused ar­eas on screen by dif­fus­ing the im­age along the edges (I can see that Szu­mows­ka wants to mim­ic Jacek’s vi­sion of a de­formed world but she em­ploys that even be­fore the ac­ci­dent), Mug at least makes us feel the character’s sor­row by con­trast­ing it with dream scenes and bright mo­ments from his past with Dag­mara — and that com­pen­sates for the film nev­er man­ag­ing to be mem­o­rable.

Transit

Tran­sit feels like some­thing Gra­ham Greene would have writ­ten if he were still alive and liv­ing in an al­ter­nate re­al­i­ty where France had just been in­vad­ed by the Ger­mans. Based on a nov­el by Anna Seghers (which I’ve nev­er read), Chris­t­ian Pet­zold’s adap­ta­tion trans­pos­es the orig­i­nal sto­ry writ­ten in 1942 to the 21th cen­tu­ry and cre­ates a clever film that cu­ri­ous­ly doesn’t feel anachro­nous now that far-right move­ments are grow­ing every­where in Eu­rope. The re­sult, in the best tra­di­tion of Greene’s works (and The Qui­et Amer­i­can quick­ly comes to my mind), is an en­ter­tain­ing char­ac­ter study and a smart po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary as well.

Like a nov­el writ­ten in first per­son, we hear a nar­ra­tion that is not lim­it­ed to telling us what the pro­tag­o­nist is feel­ing but even an­tic­i­pates events that are to come and lets us see be­tween the lines of his ac­tions. The char­ac­ter, Georg (Franz Ro­gows­ki), is a po­lit­i­cal refugee who is asked by a friend to de­liv­er a let­ter to a writer in Paris. Upon find­ing out the man is dead, he as­sumes his iden­ti­ty and flees to Mar­seille, where he be­gins a tor­rid af­fair with the writer’s wid­ow Marie (Paula Beer) — who is ig­no­rant of her husband’s fate and waits for him. As the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion wors­ens, Georg con­sid­ers the pos­si­bil­i­ty of leav­ing Eu­rope with her in the man’s place.

Qui­et and pen­sive, Georg rarely shares his in­ten­tions and mo­ti­va­tions with those around him, and we usu­al­ly see him hid­ing in­for­ma­tion or try­ing to ap­pear to be some­thing he is not in or­der to pro­tect his iden­ti­ty — and con­se­quent­ly his life. It is in­ter­est­ing to no­tice, for in­stance, that he stays at a ho­tel even though he knows that the woman who runs the place will soon­er or lat­er de­nounce him to the au­thor­i­ties — and for that mat­ter, the cast­ing of an ac­tor like Ro­gows­ki is more than per­fect, since he is al­ways great play­ing tac­i­turn char­ac­ters who keep to them­selves (just check out his per­for­mance in In the Aisles, also at the Berli­nale com­pe­ti­tion).

But not only com­pelling as a well act­ed char­ac­ter study, Tran­sit is an in­tel­li­gent com­men­tary as well, which can be seen when Eu­ro­pean refugees tell us their life sto­ries. Pet­zold makes a clear par­al­lel with our in­creas­ing­ly xeno­pho­bic times and plays with anachro­nisms by show­ing us mod­ern cars, char­ac­ters wear­ing vin­tage clothes and an of­fice dec­o­rat­ed like in the 1940s with an old tele­phone. And to make it bet­ter, the film is quite tense too.

The Heiresses (Las Herederas)

One of the fa­vorite films among crit­ics at the Berli­nale this year is the de­but of Paraguayan di­rec­tor Marce­lo Mar­ti­nes­si, The Heiress­es. Ow­ing to the works of Lu­cre­cia Mar­tel — es­pe­cial­ly The Head­less Woman (2008) — this is not just a per­cep­tive ex­am­ple of char­ac­ter study but a film that probes into mat­ters like so­cial class and the lin­ger­ing priv­i­leges of a deca­dent Paraguayan elite that feels more like a rem­nant of colo­nial times. The char­ac­ters we fol­low — the heiress­es of the ti­tle — are women who de­scend from wealthy fam­i­lies in the coun­try — one of whom finds her­self forced to re­think her life af­ter be­ing con­front­ed with a new re­al­i­ty.

Chela (Ana Brun) has been a cou­ple with Chiq­ui­ta (Mar­gari­ta Irun) for over 30 years. They have nev­er had to work in their lives and now face fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties that force them to sell part of their in­her­it­ed fur­ni­ture. But things get worse when Chiq­ui­ta is ar­rest­ed for fraud and Chela is left on her own, afraid of so­cial ex­po­sure and re­ject­ing help from friends. When she be­gins to pro­vide an in­for­mal taxi ser­vice to rich old­er ladies from the neigh­bor­hood, dri­ving for the first time in years, Chela meets the much younger Angy (Ana Ivano­va), and a close con­nec­tion starts to grow be­tween the two women, lead­ing Chela to re­dis­cov­er her­self away from Chiq­ui­ta.

Af­ter spend­ing an en­tire life pam­pered by those around her, Chela is used to a rou­tine she has nev­er ques­tioned. Be­fore go­ing to prison, Chiq­ui­ta puts a maid in charge of bring­ing Chela her dai­ly as­sort­ment of Diet Coke with ice, glass of wa­ter with­out ice, tea, cof­fee and pills — and even the dis­po­si­tion of those el­e­ments on a plat­ter must be strict­ly re­spect­ed. The film is clever to let us par­tic­i­pate in Chela’s fas­tid­i­ous ex­is­tence so we can un­der­stand how lost she feels af­ter los­ing every­thing she has (Chiq­ui­ta and her goods), as well as the con­trast that aris­es from the idio­syn­crasies of the old ladies she be­gins to dri­ve up and down.

As Chela is ex­posed to a world she has al­ways kept away from, the ef­fect is over­whelm­ing, and this is em­pha­sized by the film’s su­perb use of loud sounds that vi­o­lent­ly in­vade our sens­es, like noisy cars on the road. Brun per­fect­ly em­braces the character’s con­fu­sion and grad­ual change, let­ting us grasp, for in­stance, what it means for Chela to hear some­one call her “poupée” like in the past. And when she breaks every­thing on a plat­ter, we see where this jour­ney has tak­en her.

In the end, The Heiress­es not only ben­e­fits from a tremen­dous lead­ing per­for­mance but is also one of the few films at the fes­ti­val this year that knows ex­act­ly how to end.

My Brother’s Name Is Robert and He Is an Idiot (Mein Bruder heißt Robert und ist ein Idiot)

The last film I saw at the 68th Berli­nale was the dar­ing My Brother’s Name Is Robert and He Is an Id­iot, which made me re­al­ize I would soon be see­ing half of the au­di­ence aban­don­ing the the­ater and com­plain­ing that watch­ing paint dry is a lot more ex­cit­ing. “The sense of be­ing is time,” the char­ac­ter of Robert (Josef Mattes, Silent Youth) de­claims to his twin sis­ter Ele­na (Ju­lia Zange) as they spend a sum­mer day to­geth­er in the midst of corn­fields near a coun­try gas sta­tion and he helps her pre­pare for her fi­nal phi­los­o­phy exam. “The ba­sis of time is hope,” he then com­pletes, giv­ing away the very pur­pose of the film as well.

Ele­na says Robert is dumb and an id­iot, but he seems more like a nat­ur­al-born philoso­pher to whom thoughts come easy, mak­ing no ef­fort to come up with end­less Hei­deg­ger­ian apho­risms. Some­times, she looks like a dis­ci­ple lis­ten­ing to his philo­soph­i­cal and ex­is­ten­tial di­gres­sions, al­ways pa­tient­ly ready for his next flash of wis­dom. With 48 hours to the exam and a lot of time in their hands, Ele­na chal­lenges Robert to a bet that in­volves her sleep­ing with any­one be­fore grad­u­at­ing. If she los­es, he gets her car; if he wins, he gets to have any­thing from her that is not an ob­ject. Their love-hate re­la­tion­ship is both warm and ag­gres­sive.

Di­rec­tor and co-writer Philip Grön­ing is pa­tient as well and takes his time, al­most chal­leng­ing us to watch these two sib­lings as they ba­si­cal­ly spend their whole time do­ing noth­ing. Think­ing is wait­ing, and so we are made con­scious of our own ex­pec­ta­tion for some­thing — any­thing — to sim­ply hap­pen. Ac­cord­ing to Robert, an­i­mals can­not wait, but we as hu­mans are sup­posed to, so that “truth” will re­veal it­self in the end. This is the fun­da­ment upon which the film’s the­sis rests, if we as­sume that there is truth to be re­vealed at all. As Robert points out, this is about wait­ing, not want­i­ng. It’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween hope and ex­pec­ta­tion.

In oth­er words, want­i­ng is use­less, and the only way to see the film’s point is to wait. For a long time, how­ev­er, we are left with the still­ness of the plot — or lack there­of. It seems Grön­ing is look­ing for a pre­cise mo­ment when we will feel that time lit­er­al­ly stopped, or di­lat­ed. For those who don’t have the pa­tience for this sort of nar­ra­tive ex­per­i­ment, it may prove ex­cru­ci­at­ing for near­ly three hours of du­ra­tion, but if you let your­self be tak­en by the hand, it can be fas­ci­nat­ing, al­most meta­phys­i­cal. And for that mat­ter, your re­sponse to the film’s con­clu­sion will be di­rect­ly de­ter­mined by what kind of ex­pec­ta­tions you held up to that point.

Grön­ing presents his philo­soph­i­cal the­sis in a way that seems dis­tinct­ly pro­sa­ic and mat­ter-of-fact, some­times us­ing grainy footage and of­ten bring­ing our at­ten­tion to the mun­dane de­tails on screen, like Robert’s hands, or the ants, bees, and oth­er in­sects sur­round­ing the char­ac­ters. But he also in­tro­duces a few sur­re­al el­e­ments here and there, not only in the shape of strange ob­jects (such as a pyra­mi­dal wrist­watch) but with char­ac­ters too who ap­pear and dis­ap­pear like in a dream, dis­rupt­ing the ap­par­ent nat­u­ral­ism of what we see — some­thing that the gor­geous cin­e­matog­ra­phy oc­ca­sion­al­ly com­ple­ments with over­ex­posed im­ages.

And yet the dri­ving force in all this is the two cen­tral leads, who car­ry the film on their shoul­ders and have a mag­net­ic chem­istry to­geth­er. Hope is fu­ture modal­i­ty; oth­er­ness is the price of hope, as Robert says. Those in the au­di­ence ex­pect­ing a sur­prise are like­ly to be frus­trat­ed by a cathar­sis that is pur­pose­ly in­con­se­quen­tial. Per­haps that is the point af­ter all: the end­ing to be a re­ward to those who were able to re­main in the present (and a mock to those who ex­pect­ed).

It’s not be­cause the film ends with a bang that any­thing that hap­pens must mean some­thing. Per­haps what we see should be bet­ter tak­en as iso­lat­ed notes in a song.

March 2, 2018

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here