Forces of Nature

Berlin's Body Politic

If Don's Plum seems a prime candidate for illicit Internet distribution, a more rarefied ain't-it-cool moment was provided when the Russian producers of Aleksandr Sokurov's Taurus inexplicably chose to preview this surely Cannes-bound film in the festival's European Film Market on video, complete with an antipiracy "not for sale" warning in the image's upper left corner. The next installment in the totalitarian series Sokurov inaugurated with Moloch, Taurus is set in the greenish gloom of 1923 and concerns the prolonged death agony of V.I. Lenin following a second stroke.

Attended by his wife and sister, the bedridden "comrade leader" muses on God, the death of Karl Marx, and the doings of the Central Committee. (Trying to recall the new party secretary, Lenin wonders who elected him: "What is he—a Georgian?") At times, Taurus echoes Mother and Son—a train whistle is heard across an empty field as Lenin asks, "What is the point of suffering if there is no hope?" Meanwhile, a German attending doctor wishes he could study Lenin's great brain. Sokurov treats this classical subject with a distinctive mixture of objective naturalism and subjective vision. This film about death has a powerful, cumulative sense of the world dimming out—unless it was a factor of the video transfer.

Digital projection may well be the future, but it marred the world premiere of Bruce Weber's Chop Suey—a dense, hypervisual, proudly glamorous fetish-movie that insouciantly mixes a half-dozen varieties of film stock, and at least as many film projects. Beginning as a portrait of boy wrestler (turned model) Peter Johnson, Chop Suey meditates at length on the singer Frances Faye, while digressing on a Brazilian jujitsu champ, a family of California surfers, the spectacle of Robert Mitchum singing, and Diana Vreeland expounding. There's plenty of lovingly photographed beefcake, but ultimately Weber, who links everything together with his first-person voice-over, seems most thrilled with his own collection of photographed memories. In this, as well as his celebrity interest, Weber recalls Jonas Mekas (represented in the Forum of Young Cinema with his own personal epic, As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty).

Brutal frankness and philosophical bemusement: Reboux and Roxane Mesquida in Fat Girl
photo: Berlin Film Festival
Brutal frankness and philosophical bemusement: Reboux and Roxane Mesquida in Fat Girl

In the festival's big acquisition story, Harvey Weinstein dive-bombed into Berlin, bought the North American rights for Italian for Beginners, and was airlifted out.

Did the general absence of high-powered personalities create another sort of space? Note the prominence of female auteurs in the competition, responsible not only for the strongest entry in Fat Girl but the biggest crowd-pleaser and the major discovery as well.

The latter, La Cienaga (The Swamp), written and directed by Lucretia Martel, is a mordant account of provincial life in northwestern Argentina. In her first feature, the 34-year-old filmmaker shows so sharp an eye for color and composition, her performers might almost be playing themselves. A vivid, if oblique, narrative is fashioned out of numerous micro-incidents that coalesce in an inevitable disaster foretold. The title refers, among other things, to the summer torpor as well as the thick miasma of social relations—kids, dogs, servants, two interlocking, accident-prone families. (In keeping with the Chekhovian program, the women are forever talking about going to Bolivia for the weekend.)

Winning both press and audience prizes, Lone Scherfig's comic Italian for Beginners was billed as Denmark's fifth Dogme production and is certainly its most benign. Scherfig's ensemble includes plenty of drunks but no donkey-boys. Her focus is on relationships. Although characters die throughout, the movie is basically a sort of Ealing-style romantic comedy that ends with the equivalent of a triple wedding. Although not nearly as sentimental as Mifune, Italian for Beginners is heartwarmingly rife with second chances and redemptions. Indeed, in the festival's big acquisition story, Harvey Weinstein dive-bombed into Berlin, bought the movie's North American rights, and was airlifted out.

The other major pickup (by Sony Pictures Classics) was Wang Xiaoshuai's mediocre Beijing Bicycle—a flat and convoluted social allegory that references both The Bicycle Thief and The Story of Qiu Ju. Meanwhile, last I heard, Fat Girl and La Cienaga were still up for grabs.

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