Berlin Film Festival 2010: Geoff Andrew reports

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Fans of films about prisons and incarceration would have loved the 2010 Berlinale, says Geoff Andrew

Judging by this year’s Berlin Film Festival, you have to wonder what’s going on in the minds of many filmmakers – or, at least, those of the festival programmers. Following on from Cannes hit ‘A Prophet’ and Denmark’s superior ‘R’ (see TO’s recent Rotterdam reports ), the Berlinale offered a slew of movies concerned to some degree with incarceration and/or its after-effects. Dave Calhoun’s Berlin report deals with ‘Nénette’, ‘The Wolf’s Mouth’ (both among Berlin’s best) and Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’, all of which feature imprisonment of one kind or another, and even Polanski’s ‘The Ghost’ touches on exile and entrapment. A number of other Berlin titles, however, dealt with the theme rather more directly.

Thomas Vinterberg’s ‘Submarino’ is a reminder that ‘Festen’ was perhaps a flash in the pan. A glum fable of two brothers profoundly scarred by a childhood experience caused in part by their alcoholic mother, its study of sibling and intergenerational relationships proceeds from one volatile guy striving to straighten out his life post-jail to an outwardly more respectable single dad half-heartedly trying to escape heroin addiction. Schematic, clumsily structured, overlong, too determinedly downbeat, the film has just a couple of decent performances to recommend it.

Rafi Pitts’ ‘The Hunter’ provokes the question whether ‘It’s Winter’ was also a fluke. Again the protagonist (played by the writer-director) is an ex-con; here, what takes him beyond the law again is anger at being unable to find out from the Iranian authorities how his wife and kid came to be killed during an anti-government protest. After killing a couple of cops, the sniper drives into the mountains, but two officers track him down. So far so generic, save that the narrative’s painfully slow, the characterisation paper-thin and the whole film underdeveloped.

That too was the problem with Andreas Lust’s ‘The Robber’, a fitfully intriguing portrait of an ex-con whose passion for marathon running is matched only by that for the thrills of bank robbery. Predictability, implausibility and psychological undernourishment make for disappointment despite some well staged set-pieces; echoes of Michael Mann’s ‘Thief’ only showed up the film’s shortcomings.

Had ‘A Somewhat Gentle Man’ had Stellan Skarsgård start out sprinting upon leaving prison, I’d have suspected I was watching a Norwegian version of the same story. Happily, Hans Petter Moland’s account of an old lag’s post-prison existence – trying to hold down a job, dealing with former criminal associates, reuniting with an estranged, now grown-up son – is played very differently, and far more successfully, as dry, droll comedy-drama. If the overall story’s hardly original, telling details and the dark, slightly absurdist humour (Skarsgård is particularly fine in this respect) render the film a minor delight.

So at last to an out-and-out prison pic! Floran Serban’s ‘If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle’, while a tad predictable in places, is another promising effort from Romania, boasting an attractive turn from George Pistereanu as a young offender putting his imminent release at risk when he learns that his long-absent mother is planning to take little brother away with her. Best in scenes of angry conflict, the film builds suspensefully and for the most plausibly to a quietly satisfying conclusion.

Oh yes. Credit it or not, a few films weren’t about incarceration – that said, Ben Stiller’s highly tiresome character in Noah Baumbach’s disappointingly dull, often implausible ‘Greenberg’, just out of a psychiatric clinic, clearly remains trapped in the complacent, self-regarding ethos of a Hollywood Hills lifestyle. A notably better (vaguely) indie-style American movie was Nicole Holofcener’s ominously titled ‘Please Give’; since it’s partly about slightly arty, well-off Manhattanites, you’d expect it to display many of the same flaws as Baumbach’s LA fable, but happily Holofcener inflects what’s in some ways a slightly sweet comedy-drama about neighbouring families coming to terms with age, death, disappointment and doubt with welcome moments of authentic pain, insight and sympathetic criticism. She’s helped by an unusually able cast – Catherine Keener, Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt included, none glamorising their characters – but there’s also a witty, occasionally tough sense of irony at play in Holofcener’s deft writing. Oh, and unlike all that prison fare, this film’s refreshingly free of machismo.

Read Dave Calhoun's Berlin report here

Author: Geoff Andrew



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