Small worlds, big worlds – coping with the present at the Berlinale 2021

Tommaso Tocci is an Italian freelance film critic currently based in Paris. He regularly covers the European festival circuit writing for Italian and international publications. He is a programmer for the Saas-Fee Film Festival and has worked for Berlinale Talents and the Edinburgh International Film Festival.


Berlinale 2021: There was a sense of coming full-circle, with the 2021 edition of the Berlinale. Last year’s event in Berlin was the last major festival to go through before the pandemic swept the world, and the first in which close personal proximity became a theme to be interrogated – as well as a visible source of discomfort for attendees, amidst news of the virus outbreak which surely had made its way to the German capital already. The rest of the year saw cancellations (Cannes) and brief respite (Venice), but when the wheel spun back towards the Berlinale, it found the film industry living fully in the new age of the online festival.

The second edition under the stewardship of Carlo Chatrian was therefore the first top-tier event to happen entirely via video streaming. It’s not an insignificant detail, and while largely successful both in the quality of the films and in their technical delivery to press and industry members, the Berlinale 2021 made it clear that streaming at this level still poses some issues (the bigger and more global the audience, the more restrictions from right holders).

It also makes us wrestle with a new grammar of the film-viewing experience, one previously confined under the surface of professional dealings and now firmly mainstream: video platform links, expiration dates, festival logos permanently burned on digital screens, the 13-inch laptop as the new default landscape. Nothing is new, but there’s a difference between a de-facto necessity and an official, shared reality. Perception matters, and it’s interesting to observe how the debate shifts around things like the playback speed selector, which the Berlinale duly offered. It turns even a film’s length into a movable object, while preserving the illusion that parts of it are not being ‘skipped’, and I have seen colleagues – in rare breaks during daily marathons of titles available every day and only until morning – wonder whether it should be banned for critics.

«Introduction» (Hong Sang-soo).

But what about the films themselves? The selection, slightly pared back at 15 titles for the main competition, had a reassuring feel to it. It featured some of the usual suspects, as if to confirm that even the apocalypse can’t touch certain deep-rooted connections between festivals and directors. Like Dominik Graf, whose Fabian – Going to the dogs I have not seen and which is my most painful miss from the competition. Hong Sang-soo was another, his presence foregrounded by the organization, his new film Introduction served up on the very first morning, and featuring footage shot around Potsdamer Platz, on the same walkway journalists would normally be using to reach the press room.

A self-aware choice, but hard to argue with – Hong’s cinema is stubbornly resistant to what happens around it, a self-contained universe, and as such easy to cling to at times like these. As a monolith that you have to buy into wholesale, I have always been skeptical of his work, though I now find myself slowly coming around to it. It could be attrition finally wearing me down, but after a delightful entry last year (Silver Bear winner The Woman Who Ran), I was impressed by Introduction and its tendency to turn the middle-age melancholy that Hong often disguises under oddball, inebriated humor into a generational concern. It captures young lovers dealing with their parents and with each other, through three pivotal moments in their life. Or perhaps not so pivotal – the film is elliptical, and by disrobing these moments of both their lead-up and their consequences, it makes them linger more acutely, like memories tend to do when they come back to us later in life.

Introduction was also the first of many films at the Berlinale to allude to the pandemic, if only in passing. In the third encounter, characters sit in an empty restaurant, lamenting the state of things and remarking how the owners ‘need the business’. It’s one of those myriad little things Hong’s cinema is about while not making a big deal out of it, a fleeting reference delivered with levity in a scene ostensibly centered on something else.

«Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn» (Radu Jude).

Contrast that with the eventual big winner at the festival, Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, whose chaotic, abrasive energy is pushed even further by the prominent presence of masks on the streets of contemporary Bucharest. It’s not only one of the first straightforward on-screen depictions of what 2020 was like, but also one of the few – presumably for a while – to not make it an actual plot point. Truthful to Jude’s baroque pragmatism, you get the feeling the pandemic is in the film simply because it happened to be there in reality, and this was the most efficient way to get on with the shooting. Still the extensive first segment – following protagonist Emi (Katia Pascariu) around town – gains unspoken, additional tension from the palpable discomfort of the people it surveys. While Jude silently exposes the sexism, the vulgarity and the casual moral decay, this microcosm of people on edge effectively taps into the feelings of irritation and exhaustion we have all come to associate with Covid-19 prevention measures.

At times painfully obvious in its social commentary, Bad Luck Banging… shapes up like a provocative bit of satire that retains flashes of the director’s goliardic instinct as well as his unflinching determination to not let Romanian history quietly sediment. Revolving around a leaked sextape for which Emi, a teacher, has to stand trial in front of her colleagues and students’ parents, the film pulls on the threads of prudishness and hypocrisy as a way into deeper layers of grotesque racism. It feels like an apt Golden Bear for the times: unstable and patched together, not fully accomplished, and yet vital and funny in a messy, disruptive way.

A safer bet for the top prize could have initially been placed with the classy formalism of Céline Sciamma and Ryusuke Hamaguchi, two filmmakers in ascendancy for whom everything seems to click at the moment. Their answer to a state of emergency is to effortlessly dribble around it, as if telling fate there is simply no stopping them; going small is a challenge they can meet elegantly.

Sciamma does so by retreating to the French countryside with Petite Maman, and re-interpreting the relationship between a mother and a daughter as the adventurous friendship of two young girls, left free to roam around an isolated house in the woods. Coming off the triumph of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), it keeps the idea of a reclaimed women’s world in which the rules of emotional discourse can finally be rebuilt from the ground up. And it’s even more of a flex that such ultra-precise filmmaking, distilled down to its most essential elements, rests on the shoulders of twin children actors Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz, and comes in at just over an hour’s runtime.

«Petite maman» (Céline Sciamma).

As for Hamaguchi, his most immediate response is a stylistic one. He makes a point of shooting scenes with only two characters at a time, using real-life constraints as a prompt to focus on dialogue and conversation. The Japan of Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy appears underpopulated, sure; but the empty space feels liberating to Hamaguchi’s camera, which frames its three distinct stories as a feat of negotiation over physical space. Each is based on coincidence and surprise, giving ample leeway to Hamaguchi the screenwriter to challenge himself and come up with increasingly more elaborate scenarios.

It’s not where I would have predicted his career going after the sprawling, all-encompassing flow of time was so eloquently portrayed in 2015’s Happy Hour. As in the more recent Asako I&II (2018), he exhibits a newfound pleasure for playing with the structure of a miniature, splitting and mirroring narrative threads, playfully engaging with the language of comedy. Nestled within the third story is the most oblique and intriguing reference to the pandemic I have seen at this Berlinale: a digital armageddon, courtesy of a virus propagating via email, has put an end to all online technology, bumping everybody back to pre-internet habits. What’s more, it’s not even the focus of the plot, which instead revolves around the chance encounters between two long-lost friends (well, not exactly, but that’s where I’ll leave it).

Still, Hamaguchi perfectly captures a sense of perturbed confusion hanging over the characters. A sense of being existentially unstuck somehow, even if they have moved on from it and are now ‘back to business’. Despite being in many ways the opposite of what happened in our world, this delicious touch neatly mirrors the hesitation and resignation which dominated our personal interactions over the last year.

«Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy» (Ryusuke Hamaguchi).

Some of the films felt urgent and of-the-moment, as if being developed in real time. Language Lessons by Natalie Morales, making a quick appearance in the Berlinale Special section, is a culmination of many things: the ‘celebrities keeping busy from their mansion’ strand of media content, the desktop-movie form, and Mark Duplass’ penchant for putting movies together rather quickly and efficiently, a modus operandi that has never left him since the days of mumblecore that gave him and his brother Jay their start.

This tale of random friendship for the Zoom era, framed entirely through video calls and messages, is an actually sweet and genuine example of epistolary storytelling, written by and starring Morales and Duplass, and conceived during the lockdown months. In many ways it is the most basic answer to the question of ‘how can we make cinema in this situation?’, but it finds a certain honesty in dealing with its grief and vulnerability on an individual level, leaving the chemistry between the two leads to do the hard work of contextualizing it on a global scale.

Some others went the other way – they stood for cinema of the vintage kind, a blast from the past, a refusal to be timely. Xavier BeauvoisAlbatros didn’t leave a mark on this Berlinale competition (one of maybe a couple of titles that nobody seemed to talk about even in the echo chamber of an hyper-connected festival), but I still found its dissection of traditional masculinity intriguing. It’s an insular drama set in Normandy, around the coastal town of Étretat, the same area in which the director himself has been living for years. Perhaps best known for his Cannes Grand Prix winner Of Gods and Men, Beauvois has a quiet, attentive eye for the slow unraveling of men’s fortunes, which he applies to the story of a small-town cop (Jérémie Renier) whose well-meaning but ultimately problematic certitude is undone by a tragic accident. It’s a film that picks its battles carefully, and by keeping things local it gets to the heart of many of the issues in contemporary French society that the pandemic has put a lid on, but will undoubtedly rise to a boil soon enough.

«Albatros» (Xavier Beauvois).

Tales of opposites and extremes, then. There was, luckily, the perfect film to reign them all in – one deserving of a final mention. It’s possibly the surprise of the festival, if we put aside the madness of the Jude win, and perhaps the only title not to retreat to a smaller world and not to make a metaphor of our big, messy one. Instead it goes right for it and scoops it all up in a warm embrace. Georgian director Alexandre Koberidze presented his sophomore effort in What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?, which everybody seemed to like and yet walked away with no recognition from the Berlinale jury.

In it, a man and a woman bump into each other one night, are struck, and plan to meet again. But they wake up the next morning looking like different people, and thus unable to recognize each other at the outdoor bar they had picked. The premise sounds like one of Hamaguchi’s vaguely cruel but ultimately hopeful parables of attraction and happenstance. Koberidze wants nothing to do with that sort of exact screenwriting machinery, however; his is a meandering, associative and softer kind of filmmaking, using that bar as a starting point for the placid exploration of a city, Kutaisi, with some surreal documentary elements and a bit of magic realism thrown into the mix.

«What Do We See When We Look at the Sky?» (Alexandre Koberidze).

The carefully crafted sense of aimlessness that pours out of Koberidze’s camera has its own unique rhythms which expand to include the town’s dogs, the kids playing in courtyards, and the economy of outdoor entertainment during an imaginary World Cup. It’s like the film and its audience all showed up for the romance and had to come up with some alternative programming due to the face swap of the two characters.

It also functions as a curious mirror to Radu Jude’s jittery, edgy Bucharest, as much at war with itself and its history as Koberidze’s Kutaisi is busy finding its peace in the blurring of that history. Both directors insert their voices in the middle of the film, inviting the audience to consider how the past may impact the present. Koberidze does it over footage of the Rioni river, celebrating flow over abrasion.

It’s the closest thing in this Berlinale to what Franco Moretti called opere mondo, with its own city-wide breath of epic going round and round, and pushing would-be lovers to find each other once again.

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