“Good to see you – so many 70 year-old journalists!” joked the moderator at the press conference for Pixar’s latest animation Onward at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. Yes, it was the 70th edition of one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals, but this year’s Berlinale still had the capacity to stay fresh and vital.
There were plenty of notable guests, including Hillary Clinton (who graced the red carpet for Nanette Burstein’s exhaustive four-hour documentary about her life, Hillary). Britain’s own Helen Mirren was also on hand to collect an Honorary Golden Bear. Film-wise, the competition was a typically idiosyncratic selection, none more so than with German director Christian Petzold’s latest, Undine.
His fifth time presenting a film in Berlin, Petzold’s latest was a modern spin on the myth of the water nymph Undine, starring Paula Beer as a historian with an obsessive personality. A mix of Fatal Attraction and Underwater, it’s a film that just keeps getting stranger, not least when a giant catfish makes an appearance.
The fishy theme continued with Matteo Garrone’s live-action take on Pinnochio, the classic fairy-tale of a boy carved out of wood who dreams of being real. Roberto Benigni gave a typically boistrous performance as the wood-carver Geppetto, but the real star was the visual effects – notably the giant sea creature that swallows Pinnochio whole.
Also playing was Sally Potter’s The Roads Not Taken, a heartfelt look at dementia (something her own brother suffered from) through a performance by Javier Bardem. He plays a writer living in New York, who only has his daughter (Elle Fanning) for company. Memories mix with fantasy as the film cuts away to imagined parallel lives, including one featuring his “first love”, played by Salma Hayek. A film with its heart in the right place.
One of the most daring movies in competition was Rizi, from Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang. The story of two men, Kang and Non, it’s told with virtually no dialogue and the words that are muttered are not translated. As the opening caption says, “This film is intentionally unsubtitled.” Capturing their different lives, as they come together for a passionate encounter in a hotel room, it stands a fine chance of collecting an award when the prizes are announced this Sunday.
China’s pre-eminent director Jia Zhang-ke was in attendance, with his first documentary in almost a decade, Swimming Out Till The Sea Turns Blue. Focusing on the experiences of four authors from different generations – Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua and Liang Hong, as well as the late Ma Feng – it proved to be an intriguing and memorable way of exploring growing up in the Cultural Revolution. An impressive work in a festival full of surprise.
The Berlin Film Festival runs until March 2. For more details, visit here.