Festivals: Berlin Blog #2
Stations of the Cross
Two-thirds of the films competing for the Golden Bear have screened and the critical favorite thus far is Dietrich Brüggemann’s Stations of the Cross. The Stations of the Cross (episodic representations of Christ’s crucifixion that adorn the walls of most Catholic churches) provide the structural and aesthetic template for the film, which is split into 14 chapters, each shot in a single take and, in all but three cases, without any camera movement. Standing in for Jesus is the protagonist Maria, a 14-year-old whose family belongs to the Society of St. Paul, an fictional traditionalist Catholic sect transparently modeled on the Society of St. Pius X. In the first chapter, which corresponds to the station “Jesus is condemned to death,” Maria is told that she must make sacrifices to receive a reward from God. Deeply pious and seriously confused (two states that the film treats as one and the same), she decides to sacrifice herself so that her 4-year-old brother may be healed of his inability to speak, thus initiating her own Passion.
By emphasizing the irrationality inherent to religious dogma, particularly in the context of contemporary society, Stations of the Cross aspires to biting satire. This is only successful in the deliciously scripted opening, in which a priest holds forth in a lengthy, farcical lecture to his Sunday school students about faith and duty, and then requests that they all sacrifice things that give them pleasure. The glaring absurdities in the priest’s counsel are effortlessly conveyed to great comic effect, but this subtlety is lost in the subsequent chapters. The digs at religion become increasingly facile and repetitive, such as an unoriginal joke about all modern music being Satanic that becomes downright grating as it is reiterated in almost every chapter. Another major problem is the excessive caricature of the two central characters, Maria and her odious, scripture-bashing harpy of a mother. The latter is so overdrawn and schematic, she is impossible to take seriously. As a result, it is equally hard to believe in the psychological damage she has inflicted on her daughter, who in any case is such a passive victim that her complete inability to exercise any independent thought whatsoever eventually erodes all sympathy towards her martyrdom.
Life of Riley
Expectations were very high for Alain Resnais’s new film, Life of Riley, which disappointingly turned out to be a significantly less interesting theater/film hybrid than You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (12). Adapted from Alan Ayckbourn’s play, the film is essentially a filmed theater piece with six actors performing a linear script on a handful of minimalist sets and the camera never breaking the axis of action. The only significant cinematic elements are the clips of street footage or hand-drawn pictures that separate set changes, and mesh-like drawings (unappealingly rendered in green screen) that appear behind the actors when they deliver a monologue in close-up.
At the outset, three couples discover that their mutual friend has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Godot-like, this man never actually appears but catalyzes the action, his diagnosis injecting new and sorely needed vitality in his friends’ romantic lives. Although Resnais’s actors are very good, the play itself is not particularly engaging and only sporadically funny, and, in the absence of the experimentation that marked the filmmaker’s previous feature, it’s difficult to remain invested. At one point, one of the characters states that he prefers films to theater and another promises: “Next time, we’ll go to the cinema.” Let’s hope that wasn’t just meta-jesting.
Journey to the West
An auteur that didn’t disappoint was Tsai Ming-liang. Journey to the West, which premiered in the Panorama section, is the latest installment of his Walker series, which follows his usual star Lee Kang-sheng as he dons the robes of a Buddhist monk and walks the streets of various cities at a snail’s pace, impervious to the world around him. Here he is in Marseilles, joined by the actor Denis Lavant, who is initially seen lying down and later following the monk, their gaits in perfect synchronicity. The camera almost never moves (and when it does, the motion is virtually imperceptible) and shots are held for up to 15 minutes at a time with only ambient sounds as accompaniment: the bustling noise of traffic and pedestrians; the crashing of waves; Lavant’s deep, steady breathing.
It is truly amazing how much Tsai is able to accomplish with such a minimal premise. The film is utterly mesmerizing for every one of its 56 minutes and manages to elicit an extraordinary range of emotions. It is impossible not to be overcome by spiritual reflections as the monk descends a staircase, the glaring sun behind him turning his body into a dark silhouette outlined by a radiant halo while the dust particles in the foreground whiz around like ethereal fireflies. In a shot late in the film, the mirrored ceiling of the Vieux Port pavilion reflects the square below and, in the inverted crowd, the otherwise ever-present monk is nowhere to be seen. One scours the frame, growing increasingly anxious at failing to find the familiar red-robed fixture, and when after several minutes he finally does appear, the sense of relief is astonishing. Journey to the West is a wonderfully hypnotic achievement, offering temporary respite from the perpetual acceleration of modern life and an invitation to unwind and rediscover pleasures of watching and contemplating in their purest form.