53RD BERLIN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL Berlin, Germany, February 6-16. Rating: NNNNN
Berlin -- in the recobbled alleys of Potsdamer Platz, there's a new war on. The coalition of the willing includes Nicole Kidman, Richard Gere, Nicolas Cage, Maggie Cheung, George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Rene Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
They've all been through here in the last few days, ferried from photo call to walk-through in gleaming new Phaeton limousines (soon available from Volkswagen Canada for the cost of two Lexi).
They've had their every word and gesture recorded and sent back to Moscow, London and Sao Paulo. They've had huge, misty portrait photos unfurled in the towering Berlinale Palast cinema. Atom Egoyan's face is there, too. He's president of the competition jury.
But I doubt they've seen the Italian documentary from Palestine. Or the three-hour video portrait by Korean-American Gina Kim. Or met one of the festival's many filmmakers who get through this week on Turkish diners and free reception food.
Like most conflicts these days, this one is asymmetrical.
Class war is the story of every major film festival; the hierarchy of accreditation badges is only the first salvo. What sets Berlin apart is how it now makes that conflict part of the event.
Last year, in the midst of a real war in Afghanistan, new festival director Dieter Kosslick made the official theme Accept Diversity. This year's catchphrase is Towards Tolerance. It's plastered on everything that carries the festival's brand, which makes the whole city look like a Toronto bus shelter ad.
But diversity and tolerance make for awkward battle cries when money comes to town. Half this festival is a high-stakes European launching pad for Hollywood's prestige titles. Chicago, The Hours, Adaptation and The Life Of David Gale all made their European debuts here. And there's the usual frenzied haggling going on in the European Film Market.
The other half of the festival is a coalition of the wanting -- angry obscurities, sweet nothings or commercial hopefuls from Oslo and Hong Kong looking to make a Holy Grail sale in America. Or at least France.
Like most halves, these two aren't equal.
But the Berlinale does try. It followed the glitz of Chicago -- which does actually have a thin ideological critique sewn under its sequins -- with In This World, Michael Winterbottom's powerful story of two Pashtun refugees trekking across Europe.
Winterbottom (Welcome To Sarajevo) said he made the film to counter Europe's growing migrant phobia. This may mark, for better or worse, a resurgence in solidarity filmmaking in Europe. In the Berlinale's more experimental Forum section, Letters From Palestine collects short missives from 10 Italian filmmakers, including Ettore Scola. Although it's far more hopeful and humanist than the searing 60s films made against the Vietnam War, it won't find it any easier to reach its most useful audience: Larry King viewers.
In the end, audience is all that matters. In the competition section, alongside Zhang Yimou's gloriously florid Hero and Claude Chabrol's pale, scentless La Fleur Du Mal stands a small Senegalese film.
Madame Brouette is the flashback story of a Dakar single mom who shoots her cop boyfriend dead. Directed by Moussa Sene Absa (Tableau Ferraille) and brought to the screen by Montreal producer Rock Demers, it's a slight melodrama crippled by half-hearted musical numbers that seem designed to conform to foreign clichés about Africa. Not a great film.
Mohamed Zran's Le Chant Du Millenaire is even more obscure, though it gave me the most sublime feeling I had in a cinema all week. Zran travelled around Tunisia asking people what they hoped for their future. There's an interview with a preteen girl forced to leave school and another with a group of fishermen philosophers, both of which reach further and grasp more about life than anything else I've seen here.
The Life Of David Gale includes a lesson in Jacques Lacan, and Hero is full of kung fu transcendence, but neither can match Zran's ability to find the elemental in the everyday. email@example.com flashes
Berlin, like any film fest, can offer sudden, trenchant moments. Breaks in the clouds. Like these:
The eerie sound of Sarah Polley calling Olympia Dukakis "Mah!" in Thom Fitzgerald's The Event. They play the New York Jewish family of a dying Don McKellar.
Or Jet Li asking, "How far am I from the bookshelves?" in Hero. Remember that line.
Or the hilarious how-to-be-butch sequence in Ileana Pietrobruno's dyke pirate movie, Girl King.
Or the later scenes between Macaulay Culkin and Seth Green playing impossibly queeny New York club kids in Party Monster. Between Michael Jackson and this movie, Culkin is fast fulfilling the freak-god birthright of any great former child star.
Or Polley again in Isabel Coixet's My Life Without Me. The script suffers from a slightly twee premise, but Polley creates shockingly lovely moments onscreen, especially with co-star Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count On Me).
This may be a breakthrough year for Polley. People are raving here about her performance in Coixet's film. And since she's as much a local shit-disturber as a star, she may be just the warrior we need.CB