Berlin Diary #2
The most anticipated film on the first day of Competition screenings was Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Hope. Having taken the first two chapters to Cannes and Venice, Seidl concludes his Paradise trilogy in Berlin, thus checking off all of Europe’s A-list film festivals, a feat only achieved once before by Krzysztof Kieślowski with his Three Colors trilogy almost two decades ago. It is interesting that these two trilogies should share this honor, for though they may differ in almost all respects, at their core both are considerations of the essence of the human spirit and use Christian precepts as their point of departure. For all our sakes, let’s just hope Kieślowski is the more perceptive of the two directors.
Paradise: Hope centers on Melanie, the 13-year-old daughter of the protagonist of Paradise: Love. While the latter is off to Kenya, Melanie gets to spend her summer vacation at a weight loss camp for an experience arguably even more horrifying than her mother’s. Soon after arrival, she develops a crush on the camp doctor, a lupine man whose leer alone should provide reason enough to banish him from any institution with children present. As with the trilogy’s other installments, the film is an escalation of ever more appalling episodes that culminates in a vicious climax, leaving the protagonist scarred and the audience extremely upset.
There is so much to admire in this film. The clinical cinematography with its studiously composed, symmetry-obsessed tableaux is as flawless as ever. Joseph Lorenz and Michael Thomas as the camp doctor and sports instructor are perfect incarnations of their sleazy characters, and the barely adolescent cast of nonprofessionals fully lives up to its incredibly demanding (even degrading) roles. And yet the film is so relentlessly bleak that only masochists will see any point in subjecting themselves to such an unpleasant viewing experience. Seidl, like many of his country’s best filmmakers, has always been uncompromising and merciless towards his audience. However, in the past, his work sought to probe social and existential truths, as unsavory as these may have been. Seemingly the only commentary here is on society’s preoccupation with physical appearance. Considering the film’s unremitting ridicule of its cast of overweight and scantily clad children, its articulation is ill-judged to say the least.
In the Name Of
Another Competition entry premiering today was In the Name Of, directed by Małgośka Szumowska, whose Elles opened the Panorama section of last year’s Berlinale. The protagonist, Adam, is a Catholic priest in charge of a parish in a desolate corner of the Polish countryside where he has set up a youth center functioning as a halfway house for boys recently out of reformatory. In a very strong first half, the film depicts the boys’ harsh circumstances and Adam’s stern but loving dedication to improving them. But suspicion slowly grows as to why such an upstanding clergyman would have been reassigned from Warsaw to this backwater. Eventually, Adam’s too-close relationship with one of his charges leads to exposure of his homosexuality, provoking an upsurge of hostility toward him.
While the conflict between spiritual devotion and carnal desire is hardly new, the clergy’s common role as an illusory refuge for conflicted homosexuals is a largely untreated topic fully deserving adequate consideration. Unfortunately, despite an outstanding performance by prominent Polish actor Andrzej Chyra as Adam and consistently striking visuals by Szumowska’s regular cinematographer Michał Englert (here also co-screenwriter), In the Name Of does not fulfill its potential. Too much time is spent generating intrigue in the build-up to the revelation of Adam’s sexuality, and once it’s established, the film seems unsure how to treat the complexities of its themes, instead meandering to an affected finale that forsakes the subtlety that had so distinguished its first half. Most problematic, however, is the implicit reference to the scandals of child abuse in the Catholic Church. In an alcohol-fuelled outburst, Adam screams to his sister that he is “a faggot, not a pedophile!” The suggestion that priests accused of molesting children were actually the victims of homophobic stigmatization may well hold truth for isolated cases, but as presented here, it constitutes an unfortunate relativization of this extremely controversial issue.