BERLIN—Bookended by Colin Powell’s warmongering UN speech and peacenik marches on Tiergarten Park’s Siegessaule, the 10-day 53rd Berlin Film Festival (which ended on February 16) relished its role as an event of global reach. Its highest honor, the Golden Bear, went to Michael Winterbottom’s In This World, a gritty DV semi-documentary that took two real-life Afghan survivors of America’s carpet-bombing and restaged their cross-continental journey from the dustbowls of Pakistan to the bustling streets of London.
Winterbottom’s film was merely the tip of the geopolitical iceberg. At least three other features (two in competition) dealt with EU anxieties over illegal immigration: the frisky gay Spanish comedy Bulgarian Lovers (Bulgarians entering Spain), the dry German drama Distant Lights (Poles entering Germany), and the Slovenian melodrama Spare Parts (Kurds, Albanians, and Macedonians entering Italy).
One German entry (the winner for Best European Film) looked back on a period of assimilation with surprising nostalgia. Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye, Lenin! mines the high-concept dilemma of an East Berlin son trying to protect his weak-hearted Communist mom by not telling her that the Berlin Wall fell during her eight-month coma. This slapstick comedy glows with bittersweet affection for life under socialist oppression—and even posits that the wall came down because Westerners were jonesing for East Berlin’s untainted simplicity.
Among the strongest non-political contenders was Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet’s English-language debut My Life Without Me, which stars Sarah Polley as a young mother who keeps a fatal tumor secret from her trailer-home family to better enjoy her last few weeks. The tender melodrama (produced by Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar) hits all the MOW clichés (the fateful doctor meeting, her noble silence, a last-ditch fling) but handles them with restraint and sweet humor.
France was represented by a trio of competition films, among them Patrice Chéreau’s disappointing His Brother, a study of two estranged siblings, one of whom is dying of a mysterious blood disease (Chéreau won the award for best director); and Claude Chabrol’s stuffy but still wicked The Flower of Evil, about a prominent small-town family with secrets to burn. The biggest surprise was Pascal Bonitzer’s unpredictable anti-romance Minor Injuries, starring Daniel Auteuil as a brooding lothario who keeps failing at relationships.
Less dramatically successful but far more visually dazzling was the pre-Christian martial-arts epic Hero, Zhang Yimou’s answer to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger gauntlet. Starring Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, and Zhang Ziyi, Hero uses breathtaking production and costume design to create a hyper-stylized universe of lightning-quick swordplay and gravity-defying leaps, masterfully lensed by Christopher Doyle. The color-coded showdowns (including a girl-on-girl battle royale between Cheung and Zhang amid swirling golden leaves) are almost enough to forgive the film its narrative flaws (it won a special prize for “particular innovation”). The second Asian swordplay drama in competition, Yoji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai lacked Hero‘s flash but compensated with a heartfelt and elegiac look at the last days of Japan’s most mythologized warriors.
While one festival sidebar showed Oliver Stone’s Sundance-kissed Castro profile Comandante, the Berlinale’s concurrent market screened a rough cut of his other political documentary, Persona Non Grata, the second in a planned trilogy about radical political leaders. Shot last spring during the height of recent Israel-Palestine tensions, this hourlong study of Middle East conflagrations was meant to showcase an interview with Yasir Arafat, but the Palestinian leader was too busy taking cover while his Ramallah compound was being bombarded for anything more than a photo-op. Stone will have to knock harder on Arafat’s door to complete his movie—and, for the last one, maybe put his hoped-for interview with Kim Jong-Il on hold.