February 28 2020
Berlinale 2019: a mixed bag
20 February 2019

Ten days of terrific cinema and some unexpected treasures at the international film festival in Berlin

In Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin’s latest film The Golden Glove, protagonist Fritz Honka, a grotesque-looking man, picks up older, down-on-luck prostitutes from a bar he frequents. Then, in his drunken stupor, Honka beats them, strangles them, and saws their bodies into small parts.

People who visit Honka’s apartment complain of the foul smell since he hides the body parts behind the walls. Akin makes the situation look so real that even the audience starts to imagine it can smell decaying human flesh.

It’s is a very hard film to watch. But in the hands of a master like Akin (Head-On, 2004; The Edge of Heaven, 2007), the film becomes a strange viewing experience. One is disgusted and shocked by the images, but there is also the curiosity to see how far the director will go to project his protagonist’s depravity.

Quite like it happened with Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built at Cannes last year, some people walked out of the screening of The Golden Glove at this year’s Berlinale. One could sense discomfort among those who stayed back. Germans at large will have a chance to decide whether they can take so much violence when the film opens in theatres later next week.


Still from The Golden Glove

Still from The Golden Glove  

The Golden Glove was programmed in the competition section of the 69th Berlinale. And it was one of the few hundred films playing in several categories — some brilliant and then, as it always happens in big festivals, there were others that fell relatively flat.

This year, there was also a large selection of Indian films, including Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, Ritesh Batra’s Photograph, and Rima Das’s Bulbul Can Sing, a follow up to her National Award-winner Village Rockstars (2017). There were also a few shorts while Tales From Planet Kolkata, a restored 1993 documentary by London-based Indian writer Ruchir Joshi, played in the experimental Forum Expanded section.

True story

At the halfway mark to the 10-day festival, The Golden Glove stood out as a fascinating film for me. But I also liked François Ozon’s By the Grace of God — a harrowing story of several adult men who band together to bring criminal charges against a priest who sexually abused them when they were teenagers. Based on a true story, the trial and news of which still make headlines in France, the film deals with a theme similar to the Oscar winning Spotlight (2015). But while Spotlight worked like a thriller, set in the editorial offices of The Boston Globe, the French film focuses mainly on the victims, now adult men, especially three characters from different class backgrounds, and how revisiting the traumas of their youth affects their present lives.

Ozon has directed nearly 40 feature-length and short films, often dealing with relationships, especially same-sex partners. By the Grace of God is one of his more complex films — a multi-layered screenplay, with several characters coming in and out of the narrative.

By all counts, the strongest film in the competition section this year was the quiet Ondog. Directed by Chinese filmmaker Wang Quan’an, it’s a tale of survival, sexual desires and a murder in the Mongolian steppes.

Scene after scene of the stunning film shows a vast sweeping landscape with a tiny dot — sometimes a wolf and at other times, an 18-year-old policeman guarding a naked female corpse.

But Ondog is not much concerned with the murder. Instead, it focuses on the way of life of a few gentle folks who live in the far-off land. A lamb is butchered for a meal, a cow delivers a calf, a single woman shepherd living in a round hut finds out she is pregnant. But life goes on.

In 2007, director Wang won the Golden Bear for Tuya’s MarriageOndog is expected to win in one of the top categories as well.

Mafia movie

I also watched another terrific film, based on the writing of Italian novelist Roberto Saviano who earlier captured the rise of the modern-day mafia in Naples in his 2008 film Gomorrah, and in a television series that ran from 2014 to 2016. Now, director Claudio Giovannesi has adapted a new screenplay by Saviano (also based on his book), narrating another saga of the mafia in Naples, but this time entirely from the perspective of young teenagers.

The boys in Piranhas all have baby faces. They have barely crossed puberty. But led by the good-looking Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli) with his wide toothy grin, they all want to become gangsters, carrying guns to control their neighbourhood, sell drugs, protect local businesses, and command the respect usually given to older hoodlums.


Still from Piranhas

Still from Piranhas  

They ride scooters and motorcycles through the narrow cobblestoned alleys of Naples, firing guns at rival gangs, picking up girlfriends, drinking, and snorting cocaine. Life is really good for Nicola and his friends, expect that they are essentially children. Piranhas is an entertaining thriller, but at all times we have the foreboding sense that the world is going to come crashing down on these youngsters.

Just children

When wading through the choppy waters of a festival, one sometimes discovers films from unlikely corners. There was a buzz, but I had no idea what to expect from a Guatemalan film called Tremors. I learned that it was directed by Jayro Bustamante whose previous film Ixcanul — set among the country’s indigenous people — was Guatemala’s first official entry for the foreign language Oscar, and that it won awards at several festivals, including the Mumbai Film Festival.

With Tremors (playing in the Panorama section), Bustamante moves to new territory — examining the life of a well-to-do married man with two children. But the film’s protagonist, Pablo, has a secret that he finally reveals to his family. He is in love with another man and wants to leave his family. Pablo’s announcement shocks his family, and his conservative parents, and the repercussions are felt all the way to the church the family goes to.


Still from Tremors

Still from Tremors  

Pablo believes he is making the right decision and that it will give him happiness, but his heart breaks when a judge forbids him from seeing his children. Much of the film focuses on Pablo’s struggles with his wife, his mother and the church. There is truly no solace in his new life until he succumbs to mounting pressures.

Nobody wins in this complicated battle. But for the audience, the experience of visiting a culture vastly different from its own is very rewarding.

The author is an independent writer, film festival programmer and the author of Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, The Star.



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