On the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival

Tina Satter, Reality, 2023, 85 minutes. Reality Winner (Sydney Sweeney).

“THIS IS REAL LIFE,” a woman tells her bewildered newborn in Notre Corps, Claire Simon’s empathic nonfiction film about a Parisian gynecological clinic. The sentiment kept coming to mind amid the sheer multiplicity of cinematic visions at the 73rd annual Berlinale. Back in full force after two pandemic editions (one virtual, one constrained), the festival thrived across its sections, all the more impressively for not relying on past premieres or the sort of mind-numbing branding that afflicts some festivals. Nurturing the many ecosystems where all manner of movies can grow, Berlin elegantly balanced the demands placed on a major international festival and market, complete with star power and Spielberg tribute alongside avant-garde offerings. When Kristen Stewart, the head of the competition jury, unexpectedly bestowed the Golden Bear on Nicolas Philibert’s On the Adamant (and name-checked Aristotle and Beavis and Butt-Head while doing so), the selection encapsulated this festival’s embrace of stimulating work and lack of preconceptions about formal hierarchies.

In Philibert’s documentary, neurodiverse day-patients find creative expression and some measure of solace at a French care center located on a barge anchored on the Seine. Best known for his art-house hit To Be and to Have (2002) and previously a chronicler of a rural asylum in Every Little Thing (1997), Philibert here brings his unobtrusively philosophical eye to a few barge regulars, skillfully letting them talk themselves into existence on-screen. One weathered woman but comes alive when she starts questioning the director; a mellifluous tunesmith who resembles a rumpled intellectual in a Rivette film speaks of musical composition and conspiracy; and an angsty young man deconstructs, in unnerving but fascinating detail, a flight of ideas and associations triggered by a stray phrase. Presenting their own paintings and drawings—some of which have the vibratory quality of a van Gogh—these individuals find literal haven at this waterborne institution. Philibert suggests its days may be numbered, but he shares in its spirit of individuality and makes a robust and sensitive addition to the well-established documentary tradition of portraying psychiatric institutions.

Nicolas Philibert, On the Adamant, 2023, color, sound, 109 minutes.

An equally rich entry in documentary was Tatiana Huezo’s breathtakingly photographed The Echo, a double prizewinner for is sharp, deeply moving feminist view on a remote agrarian community in Mexico. You could add The Echo to this edition’s group of discerning intrafamily dramas that dug into perils on the home front. Lila Avilés leaps ahead of her debut feature, The Chambermaid (2018), with the miraculous Tótem. It’s set in a sprawling household where a girl’s two aunts are about to host a birthday party for her terminally ill father, a painter who is reluctant to leave his room; ambient presences about the house are his caretaker and the family’s psychotherapist patriarch, who speaks with an electrolarynx. Avilés, whose organic character-building seems to draw on her experience in theater, and her vital cinematographer, Diego Tenorio, approach the cluttered dwelling with the unbridled curiosity of one of the children, with invariably fresh camera setups and an attunement to gradations of color and shade indoors. Children’s chaos can rapidly devolve into cutesiness on film, but that’s not the case here; the through line becomes the family’s many ways of coping with and understanding the world (therapy, shamanism, cooking, play, friendship, and love among them), and the house itself comes to feel like a single living being.

Lila Avilés, Tótem, 2023, color, sound, 95 minutes. Sol (Naíma Sentíes).

Brace yourself for more family fun. João Canijo made not one, but two features about a well-appointed but fading Portuguese hotel; the superior of them, Mal Viver, centers on the family of five women who run the place; its Bergmanesque sense of clashand-disconnect largely originates with Piedade, a depressive mother whose teenage daughter is visiting. Viver Mal flips foreground and periphery to focus on the hotel guests, an entertainingly messy lot simmering with discontent. In both films, a locked-down camera anatomizes the grounds with a mordant eye. Elsewhere in the realm of fractured families, Zhang Lu’s unheralded and unusual The Shadowless Tower found a beautifully ambling and hard-to-replicate approach to a reticent Beijing food critic who learns about his estranged father and grows close to the piquant photographer with whom he works. And finally, Dustin Guy Defa’s The Adults offers the most acute portrait in recent memory of the lifelong bubble of love and dysfunction between siblings—funny, strange, and finally haunting.

Christian Petzold won an award for Afire, a climate-disaster-era comedy about a schlubby writer getting lapped by everyone and everything around him at a country cottage, but the star Berlin School alum this year was Angela Schanelec. Running a modern Oedipal tragedy through Resnais editorial overdrive, her Music is an immaculate work of cinema on many levels, exquisitely shot and unimpeachably assembled like a mosaic of moments. Indeed, it felt controlled and designed within an inch of its life, and Schanelec’s prior characterization of her screenwriting (for which she won a Silver Bear this year) as essentially making a list of shots rang all too true. While I admire the creative precision and can readily identify the film as a pinnacle within her oeuvre, the modernist pleasures on display proved offputtingly astringent, and I also felt at a loss, emotionally and otherwise, with its strategies of perpetual ellipsis.

Angela Schanelec, Music, 2023, sound, color, 108 minutes.

The festival’s “Panorama” and “Forum” and “Forum Expanded” sections also yielded provocative work. In the latter, Eduardo Williams’s A Very Long Gif installation combined footage from a swallowed pill-camera with ultra-telescopic shots from an apartment for a heady ouroboric view of inner and outer space. (It oddly resonated with Bas Devos’s environmentally attuned Here, the “Encounters” top prizewinner, which follows a construction worker who spends his weekslong vacation wandering the overgrown in-between areas of Brussels and befriending a woman studying the intricate worlds of moss.) Luke Fowler’s Being in a Place: A Portrait of Margaret Tait (which the director said he was viewing for the first time in a cinema) paid tribute to the Scottish doctor-turned-artist and her indefatigable independent filmmaking (BBC be damned). The lilting sound of Tait’s voice and rushes and other selections from her archives coalesce to create a transporting effect, with the almost subliminal soundtrack of a traditional pibroch pipe evoking a distant ship horn. And Tina Satter adroitly adapted her play Is This a Room into a standalone feature, Reality, constructed exclusively from FBI transcripts of the weirdly casual interrogation of Russian-hack whistleblower Reality Winner at her Augusta, Georgia, home. Euphoria star Sydney Sweeney turns what could have been a mere mimetic exercise into an incredibly tense naturalistic encounter with the state apparatus.

All of which still leaves a number of wildly divergent works that warrant further consideration: Hong Sangsoo’s In Water, a fearless, genuine experiment which uses out-of-focus lensing for its wispy story of a first-time filmmaker, producing a muzzy maritime impressionism; philosopher Paul B. Preciado’s directorial debut, Orlando, My Political Biography, which interlaces multiple trans lives while collapsing time periods and fictive frames; the new restoration of meditative 1982 documentary I Heard It Through the Grapevine, directed by Dick Fontaine and featuring James Baldwin reflecting on the South in the glacial aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement; and Anthony Lapia’s After, a handsome slice of techno clubgoing that doubles as a bittersweet celebration of post-pandemic gathering, in pleasure and in protest. If Philippe Garrel’s routinely nostalgic The Plough seemed to identify with its puppeteer characters who find the times moving on without them, the rest of the Berlinale’s selection pushed forward into the future with restless new visions.

The 73rd Berlin International Film Festival ran from February 16 to February 26.

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