As I was browsing the film catalogue in the plane, on my way to Berlin for the second Berlinale in a row, one thing was absolutely certain: that the 65th edition of the festival would be completely different from the previous one! If 2014 was dominated by an overflow of worldwide scope films (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Nymphomaniac, The Monuments Men, Boyhood), this year’s film selection showed a definite attempt of the festival to return to its roots, when political films, cultural diversity and auteur cinema was in the frontline, enhanced with some glamorous premiers. Leaving Berlin after ten days however, the people seem insensate and the atmosphere a bit grim.
The prerequisites for yet another great festival were all there. World premieres, dazzling superstars, prominent directors and film range from all over the world. The anticipation was growing even bigger at the infamous Arkaden Mall ticket line, where you always have the best cinematic chats and discover films to enhance you screening schedule that did not stirred up your interest in the initial planning. And yet after each screening there was a big but.
For the second time in its long history, the festival was opening with a female director film and Isabel Coixet snaps, stating that she is tired of talking about gender in cinema and eloquently declares that carrying her vagina (!!) with her does not affect her films at all. However in her film “Nobody Wants the Night” she portrays Josephine Peary, the dynamic and well-educated wife of the pioneer explorer, constrained to the preconceptions of the woman social status of the early 19th century that the director denounced in the press conference, thus converts the film into a two-hour insipid female hysteria in the frozen landscapes of Greenland.
In the opposite scenery, the Middle East desert, Werner Herzog admitted that he vested the burden of the whole film “Queen of the Desert” that is recounting the life of Gertrude Bell, iconic figure that had a crucial role in the formation of the national borders in Middle East at the end of the First World War, on Nicole Kidman’s shoulders that hadn’t got good reviews since she played Virginia Woolf on “The Hours”. And the veteran director was vindicated for his risk as the Australian super star gives a riveting performance as the female version of Lawrence of Arabia. The predicament in this case was that Nicole Kidman was the only worth mentioning aspect of the film, as her co-star James Franco delivers a flaccid performance and the plot stays shallow and very far from being characterised an epic, with only exception a few trademark picturesque shots of the desert by the master Herzog.
The days were passing by in Berlin on the same motif: long hours on queues for a ticket, indifferent and mediocre films succeeding one another and even the much anticipating films leaving a bittersweet feeling. One of which was the new Jafar Panahi film, “Taxi”, which finds the banned from the Iranian regime director behind the wheel of a taxi roaming the streets of Tehran and chatting with the clients about everyday life. And despite winning the Golden Bear, the film obviously lacks the political and critical weight against a suppressed regime that his previous work showed (Offside, This is not a film e.tc.). My first big premiere at the Berlinale Palast, “Knight of Cups”, was a disappointment despite all the in favour facts: new film from one of my favourite directors (Terrence Malick) and an excellent cast (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman and Christian Bale) two of which were standing just a few feet away from me as I was walking into the Berlinale Palast! Although the film contains all these brilliant poetic trademark elements of the great auteur, it fails to break the mould and can be characterised overall as an inferior version of “The Tree of Life”. And even the new Wim Wenders film “Everything will be fine” is oddly still and flat for the wiggler auter, which seems even worse if you juxtapose it against his older films that were screening in Berlin as part of an homage to the great director.
But the 65th Berlinale had a undoubtful protagonist and that was the music in every form. In “Cobain: Montage of Heck” the guys over at HBO prove that they know how to make a good documentary revealing the musical genius of the Nirvana frontman through an amazing editing of archive footage and animation, the “What Happened, Miss Simone” sheds light into the political activism of the famous singer and “Love & Mercy” follows the manifold persona of Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys from the depreciation to the universal recognition in a film with great performances from Paul Dano and John Cusack. Music also stood out as an accompanying score, as in no other previous festival have I thought so often how good the soundtrack of a film is (Knight of Cups, Ned Rifle, Eisenstein in Guanajuato) nor I heard before so many directors thanking their music composers (Wim Wenders, Patricio Guzman).
Ten days and 22 films later, on the flight back to Athens, I am sitting next to a greek film critic who actually helps me reach my conclusion for the festival. The potential and the will for something great was there, but it seemed like the auteurs hesitated to take that one step further away from playing it safe and deliver innovative masterpieces. Thus the 65th Berlinale will always be for me the festival with mediocre films, James Franco playing badly in three films and the one that I had the chance to shake the hand of Wim Wenders!