Fable and fantasy find favour at Berlin 2017

The article below was originally written for and published by the BFI  http://www.bfi.org.uk
On Body and Soul (2017)

On Body and Soul (2017)

Though critics often complain about the awards given out by juries at film festivals, I rarely feel the need to take issue with such decisions. After all, taste in movies, as in anything else, is highly subjective, and I know how difficult it can sometimes be for a jury to reach any consensus. As a result, surprising compromises may affect the final apportioning of prizes. So I’m not about to question the wisdom of the choices made by Paul Verhoevenand his fellow jurors when doling out the honours at the recent Berlin Film Festival. I do find it intriguing, however, that the major awards went to films that, to some degree or another, have an element of fable, muted fantasy or even fairytale, while the more wholly naturalistic contestants received either relatively minor awards (for acting, screenplay or editing) or nothing at all.

This is not to say that the films in question are not concerned with contemporary reality. Indeed, all of them deal, in their various ways, with social and political issues. Rather, it is a matter of tone or style. Unlike, say, the firmly realist aesthetic that marked movies as different as Calin Peter Netzer’s Ana, mon amour, Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman, Thomas Arslan’s Bright Nights or Marcelo Gomes’s Joaquim – to name just four of many examples – the main prizewinners felt a little more… well, metaphorical.

The Other Side of Hope (2017)

The Other Side of Hope (2017)

That may seem an odd word to use with regard to Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope, which deals – like its predecessor Le Havre (2011) – with the topic of migration. But as the film – which won the best director prize – alternates between the experiences of a Syrian asylum-seeker who arrives in Helsinki and a shirt-salesman-turned-restaurateur (their fortunes become linked in the second half of the film), Kaurismäki, as ever, keeps the raw, complex realities of today’s world at arm’s length. Yes, the film shows us detention centres, bureaucratic absurdity, racist louts and so on, but it does so with the writer-director’s customary deadpan humour, affectionate anachronisms, exquisite blue hues and a narrative simplicity that almost verges on the naive. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t fundamental truths expressed in what is a truly lovely film; merely that it is a kind of fable, a guardedly optimistic, faintly utopian response to contemporary ills.

Spoor (2017)

Spoor (2017)

The winner of the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer prize went to Agnieszka Holland’s Spoor, a multiple-murder mystery centred on a sixtysomething teacher and committed vegetarian who takes on the local hunters and corrupt authorities flouting the laws that protect both wild and domestic animals.

With its striking compositions and virtuoso aerial shots, the film often looks to become a politically inflected thriller – not to mention a celebration of the kind of elderly woman rarely granted central or heroic status in the movies. For all its generic trappings, however, the film – which kicks off with the heroine, a devout astrologer, predicting what will occur according to the inexorable truths of the horoscope – has a strong whiff of mysticism and allegory. The narrative is neatly structured around the four seasons and includes a vision of a kind of Edenic paradise where humans and animals co-exist in untroubled harmony.

On the surface at least, Alain Gomis’s Félicité – which won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize  – would appear to adopt a more grittily realist mode as it follows the determined efforts of a Kinshasa bar-singer to find money to pay for an operation for her teenage son after he is seriously injured in an accident. Chronicling her quest for cash through various areas of the Congolese capital and dispassionately observing her rocky relationship with an adoring but bibulous and fickle admirer, the film is in many respects firmly in the neorealist tradition.

Félicité (2017)

Félicité (2017)

Yet, every now and then, to the strains of a local orchestra and choir performing music by Arvo Pärt, we get interludes depicting the protagonist wandering through the bush by night – dreamlike or even symbolic scenes evidently meant to evoke something of her magical inner life, not to say a search for peace (represented, again, by communion with an animal). Moreover, as in the Kaurismäki movie, there is in the closing scenes a touch of utopianism, as problems are overcome or obstacles simply put aside.

But perhaps the most fairytale-like of all the films in competition was Ildikó Enyedi’s Of Body and Soul, which won the Golden Bear. Right from the opening scenes it announces its poeticism, with shots of a couple of deer in a forest intercut with others of cattle in an abattoir and still more of humans enjoying the warmth of sun as it emerges from the clouds. It soon transpires that these people all work at the slaughterhouse in question.

At first, the elliptical narrative seems set to become a thoroughly modern meditation on the different experiences of animals – wild or domesticated – and humans, but as it proceeds the film comes to centre more and more on a middle-aged boss with a paralysed arm and a virginal young quality-controller ridiculed by her colleagues for her apparent lack of social skills. The deer, it transpires, constitute a rather unusual kind of psychic connection between the two.

To reveal more here would be unfair to Enyedi’s highly imaginative, frequently humorous film; suffice to say that the camerawork is very impressive throughout. The cast, meanwhile, some of them particularly well chosen for their memorable faces, give fine performances that lend credibility to what is – in some ways – a traditional tale of a sleeping beauty and her prince charming.

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