by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Berlin Film Festival 2020 | Dispatch 3: Siberia, Isabella, Bad Tales

March 3, 2020

The 2020 Berlin International Film Festival may have closed its curtains on another year, but we’re still here talking its slate. Our third dispatch begins by making a liar of me — we go long once more, in service of tackling Abel Ferrara’s latest. But below that opening take, we are back on our blurb game, with thoughts on Matías Piñeiro’s Isabella, Best Screenplay-winning Bad Tales, and Radu Jude’s most recent offering, Uppercase Print, among others. Don’t go anywhere — we’ll be back later this week with further post-fest musings.

Relating to an interviewer about his moviegoing habits as a child, Abel Ferrara noted that his primary interest was in Westerns, and his interest in film, naturally, did not broaden until reaching early adulthood when he discovered directors like Pasolini, Godard and Fassbinder through the cultural climate of the late 60s and early 70s New York as we see related in the directors documentary The Projectionist.  In the latter sections of Siberia, we see Willem Dafoe fiddling with the figurines of two cowboys and a horse on an otherwise empty table.  But there’s no principle reference point here, and no “grand” metaphors for cinema Dafoe resembles merely a child playing with their toys and their imagination.

Siberia could conceivably be posited as the third part of a “reflexivity” trilogy consisting otherwise of the director’s previous two “narrative” features, Pasolini and Tommaso, essentially concerned with the relationship between an artist and their work; as we hear in the first of the three films, from the words of Pasolini himself, “Not a tale but a parable. The meaning of this parable is precisely the relationship of an author to the form he creates.” And though we can see this film itself being worked on throughout Tommaso, Siberia is arguably more of a spiritual sequel to Pasolini, but here sans any distinction between dreams, imagination and reality. This can often be testy, as the films use narrative functions more as placeholders rather than in their traditional configurations. Armond White, writing on Pasolini‘s belaboured US release in 2019, notes that the immediate tendency to view Ferrara’s more radical works as artistic failures is less indicative of the work itself than it is of living in a period where it has become difficult to ascertain the complexity of political and artistic radicalism, and as such, it will be interesting to see how long it takes until Siberia is regarded not as a failure or an idiosyncratic mishap, but rather the work of a completely free, unrestrained artist making a film about precisely that the joys of being lost in creative imagination. As in the ending of one of Ferrara’s favorite films, Pasolini’s The Decameron, Giotto (played by the director himself) exclaims, “Why create a work of art, when dreaming about it is so much sweeter?” Except, then, Siberia goes one step further, as though to attempt to construct the act of dreaming itself.  One thinks too, perhaps, of Serge Daney’s glorious appraisal of Jacques Rivette: “He was never trying to sell us anything.”

Siberia was evidently made based around Carl Jung’s The Red Book, a set of manuscripts written in a period of intense uncertainty and reconsideration of theories following the end of his relationship with Sigmund Freud. This manifests as not necessarily Lynchian as some writers have noted but surprisingly as something closer to Malick’s The Tree of Life, namely in how the film is designed around the recollection of foundational childhood experience, the circumstances surrounding how one grasps those core events, and how that shapes one’s perception within adulthood.  Because there is never any clear distinction between dream, fantasy, reality and so on (until an ingenious switch near the film’s end which shows us that Ferrara has been cross-cutting the entire time), the film exhibits itself as an virtually immediate narrative fake-out, before functioning almost entirely as a kind of stimulation of psychological senses. In one sequence, it is initially unclear whether Dafoe is communicating with his brother, his double, or himself (also played by Dafoe). In typical Jungian fashion, it is suggested that this is the shadow of the protagonist, but even with the borderline cliché dialogue it’s hard to shake the effectiveness of its mere shot-counter shot structuring literally of the same person.  The figure of Dafoe’s character Clint himself seems to be on a quest to narrativize his own life, only just barely possessing a grasp on reality by journey’s end, having montaged his life’s experiences and ideas throughout the film’s runtime instead.  Yet, ironically, Ferrara’s Jungian complex here only ever ends up leading to Freudian terrors behavioral complexes and psychopathy connected to the father, and sexual complexes connected to the mother. When the director claimed “this movie’s gonna scare people” during its Kickstarter announcement almost five years ago, he wasn’t joking.

The terror of Siberia (possibly Ferrara’s first true horror film) is in Clint’s back to nature resolve, only to discover that the dreams of the 60s have shattered and nature is nothing if not ruthless. The true horror is determinism the entire film is driven by an anxiety that people cannot shake their past (at one point Ferrara even recreates the devastating “tell it to your son” sequence from Dangerous Game), not just in choice but even in their own genetic code. These things drive the film, even with its obvious Plato’s Cave metaphors, as well as demonstrating some of the most commanding filmmaking of Ferrara’s career. Yet, conversely (but as we’ll see nearing the film’s end, necessarily so), it’s also arguably the most playful film of his entire career, with sequence after sequence only held together by the barest connective tissue, never moving from one to the other like A to B but as though each sequence is allowed to function on its own terms. As such, it’s hard to deny the formal inspiration that’s consistently on display.

Dafoe’s Clint however doesn’t necessarily always feel like a metaphor for Ferrara or even Dafoe (given their close collaboration), or frankly much of a person at all, but rather an actualized avatar for the viewer. A poor metaphor maybe, but at times Siberia can feel like a video game, but one wherein the player navigates the nooks and crannies of Ferrara or Dafoe (or both’s) repressed psyche in much the same way as an open world. There is a kind of switch, however, in the film’s final sections beginning with Dafoe’s performance of Del Shannon’s Runaway (a sequence that could very well become iconic), featuring a beautiful cut to Dafoe’s shadow dancing against a wall, a perhaps crude but nevertheless touching metaphor for Clint’s decimation of ego and rebirth as part of the world. It’s then that the toys mentioned at the beginning begin to make sense, as do the following sudden images of Dafoe/Clint/Ferrara playing some parkside game with complete wonder and innocence. When we cut back to the supposed reality, replete with dog sleds, Dafoe appears as if almost nomadic, gathering wood and making a fire. This juxtaposition with some of the earlier sequences is jarring and to perhaps the more cynical viewer may seem absurd, but the ingenuity of Siberia comes exactly from this proximity of terror and creativity. As corny as it may sound, Siberia is a near-masterpiece (if not masterpiece wholesale) about rediscovering one’s own inner child aka, the artist. And as such, this is perhaps also a hopeful metaphor for how Ferrara perceives his own artistry.  So when later there appears a talking fish, it feels foregone that it should be there, even though we’ve returned to an ostensible reality.  When Dafoe looks at the sky, it’s not a real sky — rather, it’s the sky of a movie, something that was created, not natural. Yet the film intentionally reinforces its reality throughout, one which is about not the luxury of creativity but the necessity of it, and that a life without dreams, whether sleeping, sleepless, or awake, is no life at all. Neil Bahadur

Isabella, the latest feature from Argentine writer-director Matías Piñeiro, might be described as an extended exercise in framing. Indeed, it actually opens with an image of four concentric frames of different sizes, each bearing a different shade of color. This set-up, it turns out, is part of a theater production written by Mariel (María Villar), an aspiring actress who finds her own thespian ambitions — particularly the lead role of Isabella in a local production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure — thwarted by Luciana (Agustina Muñoz), a more successful performer who also happens to be dating her estranged brother. To even summarize Isabella’s story, though, is to mislead potential viewers, as the film proceeds in a discombobulating, breathless flurry of achronological scenes that move between rehearsals, performances, and chance encounters; from busy urban intersections in Buenos Aires to verdant provincial landscapes. As in Piñeiro’s previous feature, Hermia and Helena, Shakespeare doesn’t serve as a strict model so much as a starting point for this director’s raconteurish explorations. An image of Mariel laying out and rearranging a grid of differently-colored paper squares practically serves as a statement of intent, underlining the way Piñeiro uses structure and tonal contrast to alter the expected emotional charge of any given story beat. (This formal conceit obliquely recalls Hill of Freedom, which the Argentine director has singled out as his favorite of Hong Sang-soo’s films.) In this way, Piñeiro highlights the formal boundaries of his own film, thereby establishing it as a field of narrative play in the manner of his previous work. But if Isabella ultimately feels less like a culmination than a dead end, that’s something that Piñeiro himself seems to have recognized. The film’s final scene sees Mariel relinquishing her doubts and stepping into a new phase of her career, and one is left with the impression that the 37-year-old director might end up doing the same. Lawrence Garcia

The stink of desperation wafts heavily from Damiano and Fabio D’Innocenzo’s Italian never-coming-of-age drama Bad Tales. An unholy hybrid of the dreamy lyricism of The Virgin Suicides and the stomach-churning grunge of Gummo, Bad Tales feels like an artifact from another era, a morality tale 20 years too late to the party. The kids are not all right in the middle-class cul-de-sac where our story unfolds, nor are the parents, who are too self-obsessed to notice all the bomb-making and underage-canoodling taking place right under their noses. The D’Innocenzos try mightily to shock with their content, including everything from a 12-year-old boy being offered a blow job from a very pregnant teen — who at one point squeezes milk from her breast onto a cookie as a form of flirtation — to a father giving his pre-teen son condoms in case he gets lucky with the local lice-ridden, bewigged “weird girl.” The imagery itself is awash in irony, all golden-hour filters and soft focus, while fathers masturbate furiously in backyards and savagely beat their sons. There is casual discussion of unemployment and unhappy marriages, serving as potential causes for the rot at hand; or maybe the history teacher who fills his lesson plans with tales of terrorism and suicide should be held partly responsible. It is clear that the actions of the elders are having a negative effect on today’s youth, a story perhaps as old as time, but one that still holds weight in our culture when told effectively. Unfortunately, there is nothing new to be gleaned here, the film so built on didacticism even as it steadfastly rejects both plot and a reliable narrator. There is no forward thrust, nothing to engage the viewer. The child actors are fine and not much else, while the adults barely make an impact. The whole thing becomes rather numbing after a while, the bad behavior and gauzy visuals making the events feel less like a dream than an artfully-directed afterschool special — and the lack of specificity is particularly galling. Larry Clark called and wants his sexy moral outrage back. Steven Warner

Building upon the explicit interrogation of images and their meanings that one finds in I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History As Barbarians, Radu Jude’s new film Uppercase Print largely eschews a traditional narrative, and instead oscillates between a filmed stage play and archival television footage.The former is a filmed recreation of Gianina Cărbunariu’s 2012 play, which drew from official Romanian secret police (Securitate) surveillance files about Mugur Călinescu, a young man who in 1981 created distinctive graffiti slogans in public places professing anti-socialist and anti-Ceaușescu sentiments (drawn in large, bold uppercase letters). In his now typical Brechtian fashion, Jude shows the entire set of the play, then shoots individual scenes and actors in careful medium shots that lie somewhere between studio portraiture and police line-up photos. The actors, reciting dialogue taken from official memorandums, witness declarations, and audio transcripts, speak directly to the viewer, and Jude only very occasionally moves the camera or places more than one person on screen at a time.

This boldly artificial staging is interspersed with a plethora of archival television footage from the period — essentially state sanctioned pop culture, ranging from commercials to educational short films to comedy routines to musical performances. The footage is often hilariously dated and aggressively over the top in its shameless celebration of ‘official’ culture. (The film practically exults in ludicrous cultural minutiae, such as an instructional on how to properly and politely beat one’s rugs so as not to disturb one’s neighbors, or clips of police organizing a sting operation to catch rude motorists who honk their car horns.) The point of these juxtapositions is clear: as the unadorned, banal details of the police case gradually accumulate, eventually leading to the ruin of young Mugur’s life, frivolous propaganda inundates the Romanian population on a daily basis (production values and dated stylistic tropes aside, television under an authoritarian ruler like Ceaușescu isn’t radically different from what we see every day in America). But ultimately the film becomes a bit of a slog, as the mishmash of the two modes goes and on and on, long after the point has been made. Uppercase Print frequently comes across like a gallery installation piece — with the exception of the last section of the film, where Mugur’s ultimate fate is revealed, one could hypothetically watch any few minutes of the film in any order and mostly get the point. Still, Jude remains one of the most exciting filmmakers working today, and while Uppercase Print is no masterpiece, it is a valuable addition to Jude’s overall body of work. Daniel Gorman

Using the infamous Lorraine, France coal miner strike of 1995 as a launchpad for his debut feature, Strike or Die director Jonathan Rescigno explores various meanings of the word “strike” while drawing a line between the class struggle of the miners and its legacy within the region and its inhabitants. Lorraine, Rescigno’s hometown, produced upwards of 60 million tons of coal, but  rather than compete with cheaper foreign exports, the industry shut down in 2004. Grainy footage of the striking workers, whose masks, helmets, and homemade blockades evoke more contemporary protest imagery, from Hong Kong to Venezuela, is interspersed with loosely connected stories set in present-day Lorraine. The most compelling of these concerns a middle-aged boxing coach who trains a class of mostly African and Arab immigrants; as a teenage boy notes, his grandfather was a miner because “they needed a workforce.” The boxers’ exhausted, sweat-drenched bodies carry on the legacy of the shuttered mines: the semi-sacred idea that grueling physical toil — labor in the truest sense — is its own reward.

The boxing gym is a place where the older and younger generation, nationals and immigrants alike, can achieve a common goal and fight versions of the same battle. It’s a literal representation of the “fight or flight” impulse, one that mirrors the dilemma of the city’s youth: stay and carve out a livelihood in a declining, deindustrialized city or leave for the unknown. France has a history of miner strikes dating to the late 19th century, and coal miners remain a potent national symbol of workers’ rights and class solidarity. But less than thirty years after the 1995 protest, which resulted in an unprecedented benefits and retirement package for miners, a municipal museum has castrated and sanitized its destructive force, omitting all traces of conflict. It instead opts to “bear witness,” per the museum guide, a former miner who is quick to pivot from armed protest to the relatively peaceful tactic of strategic walkouts. In a surreal scene, a priest, flanked by employees holding pickaxes, blesses the museum and delivers a sermon that hinges on the idea of protest as a vehicle for preserving dignity. For the miners, boxers, and other characters in Rescigno’s film, the human dignity earned through hard, honest work is bitterly won, violently guarded, and almost always a double-edged sword. Selina Lee

Imagine, ever so briefly, that you’re actually in attendance at the Berlin Film Festival and not just catching up on the smattering of reviews posted online over the past week. Many of the works bring anticipation simply based on the clout of their maker (Tsai Ming-liang, Abel Ferrara, Kelly Reichardt, Hong Sang-soo, Philippe Garrel, etc.) or by the section that they’ve been placed in (Competition usually providing the big names with little rewards, and smaller, more adventurous entries playing second fiddle). Yet, these are only a small list of what’s to be offered; after all, you want to get the best bang for your buck — so you begin to look elsewhere. One day you’re just palling around, trying to catch some of the ‘big’ stuff, while also mixing in some of the obscure, and all of a sudden, you’re pulling up to the Delphi Filmpalast to view Eyimofe. Now, is there anything particularly wrong with this piece of unambitious misery porn from brothers Chuko and Arie Esiri? Not really; it’s competently assembled, features some decent performances, has some level of acumen in regards to its mise-en-scene — in other words, the absolute bare minimum needed to fill a “wannabe European art house” quota that features films tritely conceived with the assumed sole purpose of being programmed at festivals like Berlinale. This is to suggest (ok, more just flat-out state) that the notion of these inclusions represent a larger failing of the festival industry on behalf of both the filmmaking artists and filmgoing public: that those who are established can walk through the front door with new works (usually relegated to small screenings that fill quickly), while others feel obligated to play up to certain aesthetic rules to get noticed, producing artistically-stunted projects more concerned with marketability than craft. Who wins? Fucking nobody. The critics are forced to watch indistinguishable debuts that will never see the light of day (outside of being able to, of course, brag that it screened during the dead of night at some sidebar at a festival) while the “regular” folks get to blow their hard-earned paychecks on uninspired shit like this. Turns out, careless, prescriptive programming might not be in anyone’s best interest. Paul Attard

Winnipeg madman Guy Maddin is back with another kooky, kitschy post-modern melodrama, this one called Stump the Guesser. It’s a 20 minute short that finds a carnival guesser lose his powers as he tries to find a way to marry his long lost sister. Anyone familiar with Maddin’s antics knows what to expect here, as he gallops through plot twists, frantic cutting that approximates old school Soviet montage, and wildly gesticulating, exaggerated actors. There’s a lot of inventive nonsense here, as Maddin seems dedicated to an almost constant stream of visual jokes and general lunacy (my favorite bit being a ‘guesser inspector’ who revokes the man’s guesser license and then adds a negative one point for incest). It all builds to a bizarre ending where the man must muster all his potential guessing power to pick between one of two doors, after which he’ll have to marry what’s behind his chosen door.

While not a Maddin completist, Stump the Guesser appears to me to be the director’s first work that is either entirely, or at least predominantly, shot on digital. The problem is, then, that the filmic quality of his early work is missing, the ghostly, smoky haze of small gauge 8mm and 16mm that linked Maddin to earlier generations of avant-garde filmmakers here absent. Maddin’s usual postmodernist mode of appropriating old silent techniques, a kind of meta-nostalgia, disappears in the sheen and crystal clarity of high definition. Video is decidedly present-tense, not a medium prone to historical nostalgia (or if there is, it’s only for the fuzzy, glitchy quality of early VHS tapes).  Maddin seems to be trying to do the same thing as always, not bothering to reconfigure his sensibility to this new format. It’s too crisp, and the image is left feeling flat and boring. The various graphics that pop up (meant to imitate old timey newspaper ads) are so clean and clearly delineated that they obliterate the illusion. The ephemera of film connotes a physical, tangible history the sprocket holes, scratches, and jumpy frame rates all point towards the intervention of time, history, and a human touch. Digital does none of this, robbing the short film of any materialist quality. It’s a pretty big missed opportunity for Maddin, relegating Stump the Guesser to a mere curiosity rather than a fully-formed work. Daniel Gorman

Within this year’s Panorama Dokumente section at Berlin, Patric Chiha’s If It Were Love stands as one of the festival’s more esoteric, and in many ways radical, documentaries. It’s also deceptively simple, ostensibly telling the story of over a dozen young dancers as they bounce from theater to theater performing Gisele Vienne’s Crowd, a modernist piece about life in the ’90s Berlin underground scene. As the film blurs the line between the dancers’ lives on and off the stage — thereby invigorating its mixture of performance sequences and gorgeously composed interviews — Chiha keeps his focus squarely on the bodies at play. Each performer finds their on-stage lives bleeding into their off-stage existences, and vice versa, which gives this otherwise impressionist documentary a shocking sense of emotional depth and humanity. Its dance sequences are often hypnotic, while occasional voiceover gives the film least a small sense of narrative momentum. Mainly, though, Chiha’s film is a tone piece that observes bodies and movement driven by primal emotion. At nearly 90 minutes, If It Were Love does take some time to get used to, particularly as its enveloping use of sound and its focus on dance and performance might be better suited to a gallery or stage setting. But if one is able to give themselves over to the film’s almost surreal portrayal of bodies intertwined in dance, it offers a rapturous experience. Josh Brunsting