The Competition is over and as always, it’s been a mixed bag, with entries that ranged from the extraordinary to the blatantly PR-motivated. However, many would argue that the true soul of the Berlinale isn’t to be found in the Competition, but in the festival’s secondary sections, such as Panorama and Forum. These are indeed more representative of the Berlinale’s reputation as the most democratic of Europe’s top three festivals, this year presenting 93 features combined.
So Much Water
One such example is So Much Water, the feature debut of Uruguayan writer/director duo Ana Guevara Pose and Leticia Jorge Romero, which had its world premiere in Panorama. In the film, a divorced father goes on vacation with his two children—a daughter in her early teens and a son a few years younger—both of whom usually live with their mother. From the moment they leave, they are plagued by a ceaseless downpour that only exacerbates the father’s desperate attempts at connecting with his children, particularly the daughter. With affectionate humor and remarkable subtlety, the film succeeds in drawing a touching family portrait by generating convincing dynamics that skillfully convey the tension between familial love and the resentment bred by divorce.
Habi, the Foreigner
Another excellent feature debut that celebrated its world premiere in Panorama was the Argentine film Habi, the Foreigner, written and directed by María Florencia Alvarez. The 20-year-old protagonist, Analía, lives in a small town and comes to Buenos Aires to deliver a package. She is not enticed by the prospect of returning home to take over the family’s hairdressing salon, and after a chance visit to a Muslim funeral, she spontaneously decides to stay in the city. Introducing herself as Habi, she starts attending Muslim services and learning the language and customs, immersing herself in this unfamiliar culture. Addressing themes of permeable identities and self-discovery, the film presents a variant of Antonioni’s thesis from The Passenger within a much more modest scope, offering an insightful consideration of a person’s disorientation at one of life’s critical turning points. The portrayal of Muslim culture constitutes a particularly commendable aspect of the film. Alvarez sensibly eschews the penchant for exoticism prevalent in Western cinema, which so often results in simplistic representations of Islam as either threatening or misunderstood. Its treatment here is refreshingly respectful and nuanced, providing a wholly credible harbor for Analía’s existential confusion.
Coming Forth by Day
The burdening of a family through an invalid patriarch is a recurring motif in cinema from countries with recent or still unresolved histories of democratization. It was central to 2011’s Iranian Golden Bear winner A Separation by Asghar Farhadi and to Rodrigo Plá’s The Delay from Uruguay, one of the highlights of last year’s Forum program. This year it provided the focus of the Egyptian film Coming Forth by Day by writer/director Hala Lofty, which also screened in Forum. The everyday routine of Hayat and her daughter Soad is governed by caring for their senile and bedridden husband and father. Dividing all their time between working their jobs and working at home, they lead an onerous and disconsolate existence in which the young Soad’s aspirations exist only as forlorn daydreams. The film encompasses a day in their life, employing an austere style dominated by very long and unobtrusive takes to carefully evoke the dialectic between the women’s sense of responsibility and their unvoiced yearning for liberation. Although the contemplative pace invites allegorical interpretations, these are always kept secondary to the human element at the heart of the story.
Forum is also the section where one finds more experimental features that reject conventional narrative structures. An example in this year’s program was The Meteor by Canadian director François Delisle, who also wrote and produced the film. Taking a man’s imprisonment for manslaughter as its premise, The Meteor explores the psychological ramifications for those involved, focusing primarily on the culprit, his wife, and his mother. Told entirely in voiceover, the film switches between the characters and allows each of them to reflect on their predicament through a series of interior monologues. The screen either shows the characters themselves or images that indirectly illustrate their monologues. These images are always arresting and strikingly eloquent, providing a poetic complement to the thoughts and emotions described by the characters. When the prisoner relates his experience of solitary confinement, for instance, it is accompanied by a continuous shot of a tunnel’s ceiling taken from a moving car, the blinding bursts of sunlight upon entering and exiting the tunnel coinciding with the beginning and end of the voiceover. This formal experiment engenders an absorbing mode of storytelling that approaches its subject through multiple perspectives, each enriching the other in a manner more akin to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying than to Kurosawa’s Rashomon.