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Berlinale 2021: The so-near-yet-so-far stark contrast between theatrical and home viewing experience

The New York Times
·7-min read

BERLIN €" No one wants to read more on the things we miss about going to the movies. Too much has been written about that already €" and I can practically hear the pipsqueak sighing of mini-Mr. Stradivarius, stressed out by the demand for his tiny violins.

But with the Berlin International Film Festival divided this year into two events €" a physical edition to take place in city theatres this summer, and an online press and industry portion that unfolded over the past five days €" the so-near-yet-so-far contrast between theatrical and home viewing has never been more stark.

I've never felt more removed from the real Berlinale, as the yearly festival is known, or sensed more acutely the strange sterility of pandemic-era online movie watching.

A jury of directors whose films have won the Golden Bear, the festival's top prize, announced the competition prizes without fanfare via a video livestream Friday. Some were among my favourites from an outstanding lineup: the top awardee, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, by Radu Jude; the Best Screenplay winner, Introduction, by Hong Sang-soo; and Maria Speth's Jury Prize recipient, Mr Bachmann and His Class. Others I have yet to catch.

That is always the way €" but this year's online-only presentation meant few buzzy, last-minute discoveries, found out by word of mouth.

Instead, the stellar program played at my personal convenience, in my living room, sometimes scarcely 12 inches from the end of my nose, on a laptop screen. The stories were teleported in perfect resolution directly into my brain, with a frictionless purity. At some point, I realised: It's no longer even the sociability of the theatrical experience that I long for; it's simply the interference. I miss the dust in the projector beam. I miss the tiny tactile imperfections of being in a public place that remind you there's a world outside the film and your own echo-box brain. Without them, everything is too clean.

So it's good that some of the best films were, frankly, dirty. Jude's Golden Bear winner begins with graphic sex acts and ends with a woman in a superhero costume shoving an oversize sex toy into a priest's mouth. So, maybe not one to have on when the kids are homeschooling. In between, however, it's perhaps the most direct sampler of pandemic-era filmmaking we've yet seen, with virus restrictions shaping both the form and the content of a scrupulously untidy satire about a schoolteacher whose sex tape is uploaded to the internet.

But its central section is a different beast: a compendium of bite-size segments, most just a few seconds long, into which Jude packs a hundred sometimes blistering, sometimes banal observations about life, sex and Romanian society. It's almost like an exorcism of all of the ideas that can ferment in a mind left alone too long with its thoughts €" so it might feel familiar to anyone who has ever wildly overshared on a Zoom call because it's their first social interaction in a week.

A leaked sex tape threatens the career of a school teacher in Radu Jude's wry social commentary, Loony Porn | Twitter - @berlinale
A leaked sex tape threatens the career of a school teacher in Radu Jude's wry social commentary, Loony Porn | Twitter - @berlinale

A leaked sex tape threatens the career of a school teacher in Radu Jude's wry social commentary, Loony Porn | Twitter - @berlinale

Bad taste is also the chief attribute of actor-director Dasha Nekrasova's hysterically schlocky The Scary of Sixty-First. In the film, two young women become obsessed (and possessed) by the sordid story of Jeffrey Epstein, as theorised on numerous conspiracy websites, after they discover he used to own their new apartment. It's not directly about the pandemic, but the horror of the walls closing in and being Too Much Online are certain elements that many of us can relate to.

Infinitely more wholesome, Natalie Morales' Language Lessons is also a response to quarantine filmmaking restrictions. Told entirely via virtual-meeting app calls, it casts Morales as an online Spanish teacher who connects with a student (Mark Duplass) after the sudden death of his partner. It's not often that films track platonic friendships as though they're romances, and rarer still that the process happens exclusively in head-and-shoulders close-up. But the movie, while a little, well, "millennial" in its portrayal of the duo's angsty interactions, is surprisingly easy to watch, despite the constraints of its format €" a testament especially to Morales' amiable screen presence.

It would be a reach to claim any acute topical relevance in the quietly stunning Vietnamese title Taste, which took a Special Jury Prize in the festival program's Encounters sidebar. But for those of us who have experienced lockdown as an infinitely repeating cycle of postures in the same few dimly lit interiors, there is a kind of kinship with its uncannily precise and minutely choreographed tableaux. Director Le Bao's arresting debut is a largely wordless depiction of a Nigerian footballer who lives, cooks and occasionally couples with four Vietnamese women in an eerily stripped-back Saigon tenement.

At the end of Taste, a tiny rodent sticks its quivering nose out of a mouse hole before retreating back within. This leads me to those Berlin titles that are the opposite of brash, that beguiled me instead with their smallness €" a quality flattered by the intimacy of online home viewing.

Feature films don't come much smaller than Introduction, the latest miniature by South Korean auteur darling Hong. It is a 66-minute black-and-white scrap of a thing that still somehow manages to play as a deep breath of refreshingly cool, oxygenated air.

It won't convert anyone not already attuned to Hong's low-key, rueful register, but for the initiated, its delicate story of a young couple navigating a fearful entree into the adult world with the well-meaning assistance of their mothers has all of the familiar strangeness of the director's best work.

There's another small, exquisitely detailed portrayal of a mother-child relationship in Petite Maman, the latest film from the director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma. Portrait was something of an art-house blockbuster when it came out last year, but in Petite Maman, Sciamma is back in the mode of earlier films like Tomboy, delivering a beautifully observed growing-pains drama that is also deeply respectful of the dignity and personhood of very young children.

It has a magical central twist, but the film's real magic is in its somehow healing evocation of the bone-deep loneliness of existence, summed up by a line spoken by its 8-year-old star: "Secrets aren't always things we try to hide. There's just no one to tell them to."

Great films often feel like a secret you've been told, and that's how it is with Alexandre Koberidze's What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, a gorgeous modern fairy tale about ill-starred love, mysticism, soccer and street dogs, which is also perhaps the most bewitching love letter to a hometown that I've ever seen. Throughout, the filmmaker's own wry baritone narrates, and sometimes contradicts or digresses from, the story, and the effect is almost a flirtation, as he invites you to amble with him through the ancient city of Kutaisi, Georgia, making briefly visible the supernatural forces that connect us all even though we don't believe in them anymore.

Full disclosure: I got to see this one in a movie theatre, at a socially distanced press screening before the festival began. (I've since watched it online, and its miraculousness was not lessened one iota.) So in addition to the transcendence offered by the scene in which a gang of local kids plays soccer in joyful slow motion while a gloriously cheesy song by Italian singer Gianna Nannini plays, just this once, I also got the dust in the projector beam.

It was like a glimpse of better, dirtier days to come.

Jessica Kiang c.2021 The New York Times Company

Also See: Berlinale 2021: Memory Box directors discuss wading through Beirut blast and the pandemic

Berlinale 2021: Daniel Bruehl's 'humiliating' Hollywood experience shaped his directorial debut Next Door

Berlinale 2021: Romanian director Radu Jude's Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn wins Golden Bear

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