Berlin International Film Festival — Day 11

68th Berlin International Film Festival — Day 11

My Brother's Name Is Robert and He Is an Idiot

20) Daugh­ter of Mine, or Figlia Mia (Italy/Germany/Switzerland, 2018)

Vit­to­ria (Sara Casu) is a red-haired nine-year-old girl grow­ing up with her adop­tive par­ents in a re­mote vil­lage in 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 her 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 by 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 that 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 though noth­ing hap­pened – and it is 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 of the ef­fort and tal­ent in­volved up to this point.

21) Mug, or Twarz (Poland, 2018)

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 ini­tial scene, when we are in­formed with 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 that are con­stant­ly at each other’s throats, while his work­mates also fight all the time. It is 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 about this is that, by some­how ref­er­enc­ing Franz Kafka’s “The Meta­mor­pho­sis,” es­pe­cial­ly in a fam­i­ly din­ner scene when Jacek’s en­tire fam­i­ly looks re­pelled by the way that he eats af­ter the ac­ci­dent, Mug doesn’t leave much room for nu­ance – and that is made worse by Dag­mara prov­ing to be such a self­ish, shal­low per­son, and by a de­spi­ca­ble priest we see want­i­ng to hear the spicy de­tails of oth­er people’s sex­u­al lives and steal­ing the mon­ey from do­na­tions – al­though, on the oth­er hand, the con­struc­tion of the stat­ue is a de­li­cious irony and prej­u­dice is clev­er­ly shown only to mat­ter some­times when it hits home.

Stum­bling also in the way that Szu­mows­ka di­rects our eyes to se­lec­tive­ly fo­cused ar­eas on the screen by dif­fus­ing the im­age at the edges (I can see that she 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 how the film nev­er man­ages to be mem­o­rable.

22) Tran­sit (Germany/France, 2018)

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 have nev­er read), Chris­t­ian Petzold’s adap­ta­tion trans­pos­es the orig­i­nal sto­ry writ­ten in 1942 to the twen­ty-first 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 in the Berli­nale com­pe­ti­tion).

But not only com­pelling as a well-act­ed char­ac­ter study, Tran­sit is an in­tel­li­gent com­men­tary as well, which can be seen in a scene in which 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 top it all off, the film is quite tense too.

23) The Heiress­es, or Las Hered­eras (Paraguay/Germany/Uruguay/Brazil/Norway/France, 2018)

One of the fa­vorite films among crit­ics at the Berli­nale this year was 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 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 that 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 that 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 that 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.

24) My Brother’s Name Is Robert and He Is an Id­iot, or Mein Brud­er heißt Robert und ist ein Id­iot (Germany/France/Switzerland, 2018)

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 that I would be soon see­ing half of the au­di­ence aban­don­ing the the­ater think­ing 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 close to a coun­try gas sta­tion and he helps her pre­pare for her fi­nal school 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 on which lies the film’s the­sis, if we as­sume that there is truth to be re­vealed at all. As Robert points out, this is about wait­ing, not want­i­ng. It is 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 that 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 in 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 that ap­pear and dis­ap­pear like in a dream, dis­rupt­ing the ap­par­ent nat­u­ral­ism of what we see – some­thing that the gor­geous cin­e­matog­ra­phy com­ple­ments oc­ca­sion­al­ly with over­ex­posed im­ages.

The dri­ving force in all this, though, is the two 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 is 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

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