Last Thursday the 61st Berlin International Film Festival kicked off with a star-studded red carpet gala for Joel and Ethan Coen’s “True Grit,” the stateside hit (and Best Picture Oscar nominee) that was celebrating its international premiere here. The Coen’s revenge epic about a fourteen-year-old girl out to bring her father’s murderer to justice seemed an appropriate opening shot for a festival which, in its opening weekend, has included a fair number of films about children and adolescents in peril.
The Berlinale, as it is known here, is by far the most down-to-earth of the three main European film festivals. Compared to Cannes and Venice, it is a decidedly unglamorous affair partly due to the time of year it occurs, the general gritty aesthetic of the Germany capital and the eclecticism (and often obscurity) of the offerings.
It is also the largest and most audience-friendly of the Big Three, with over a quarter million tickets sold for the roughly 400 films shown over the festival’s eleven-day period. Joining “True Grit,” which screened in the main program but will not be competing for the festival trophies, the Golden and Silver Bears, were two feature film debuts by female directors that revolved around minors in danger. Despite surface similarities, however, the two films – which will compete for the trophies – that arrived on days two and three of the festival, could not be more different. The jury will certainly take notice.
From Mexico, Paula Markovitch’s “El Premio” (pictured) stands a chance to snatch a bear or two, while Victoria Mahoney’s “Yelling to the Sky” is a fairly unremarkable American indie film that is sure to get a boost from headlining an international festival.
“El Premio” is a slow, meditative piece with a political back story and a headstrong protagonist too young to understand the danger that her family is in. Incidentally, these aspects are shared by last year’s Golden Bear winner, the Turkish production “Bal.” For a festival whose award choices are often seen as political, “El Premio” is exactly the sort of film that Berlin loves.
Mysterious and beautiful, Markovitch’s film invites similarities to Victor Erice’s “The Spirit of the Beehive” and Louis Malle’s “Au Revoir les Enfants,” two other films about childhood, mortality and the loss of innocence. Seven-year-old Ceci Edelstein lives in Argentina with her mother in a ramshackle house by the seashore, subsisting on next-to-nothing. Her mother, an artist of sorts, explains to Ceci that they must hide from the people who are looking for them, the same people who took away Ceci’s father and cousin.
When the film opens, it is unclear how long mother and daughter have been running. The mother has just given Ceci permission to attend a nearby school. We see the world through Ceci’s eyes, observing closely the rowdy atmosphere in the second grade class where Ceci is the best student, her relationship to her severe yet ultimately goodhearted teacher and the friendship that is strained by the lies that Ceci must tell to protect herself and her mother. Lurking in the background is the political violence of Argentina in the 1970s, although few concrete details are here provided. This is a film concerned with small things and individual emotions and the larger picture is only ever hinted at. Often the locations themselves become characters in the film: the austerity of the second grade classroom; the school yard where the students are forced to march in the rain to ammend for a peccadillo; the abandoned shack where Ceci and her mother are hiding out; and most centrally, the beach and shore.
The prize of the film’s title is an award for an essay writing contest sponsored by the army that Ceci wins. The drama surrounding the bestowing of this award is the center of a film that simmers gently with an ever-present threat of violence, yet also contains much beauty and tenderness.
“El Premio” never seems labored or hurried. Somehow, Markovitch, a screenwriter who contributed to the script of Fernando Eimbcke’s “Lake Tahoe,” coaxes an emotionally rich and varied performance from Paula Galinelli Hertzog as seven-year-old Ceci Edelstein. Sharon Herrera as the mother has the apsect of a hunted animal and a haunted woman.
Where “El Premio” opts for mystery and understatement, Mahoney’s directorial debut “Yelling at the Sky” explains way too much. Mahoney, a former actress who starred in several unmemorable features from the 1990s (“Wild Orchid II,” anyone?), also wrote and produced. “Yelling to the Sky” is the story of Sweetness O’Hara (Zoe Kravitz, daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet), an adolescent from a broken home, with a pregnant older sister, a violent drunk for a father, and a mother who suffers from some form of addiction or mental illness. When we first meet Sweetness (or Sweety for short), she is the target of bullies in her suburban neighborhood. To deal with her disintegrating life, she gets tough and starts peddling drugs in the school stairwell and in front of C-Town. This earns her street cred, even with her former tormentors, who crown her Queen Bitch. The tables have turned for Sweety, who is getting high on power. But after a traumatic party that culminates in hard drugs and a totalled car, Sweety decides to mend her ways before it’s too late. Seriously, the film stops just short of showing us a miraculous acceptance to an ivy league university.
Despite small attempts to curb the sentimentality quotient, ‘Yelling to the sky’ remains cliched beyond repair. The elements of the film that could otherwise distinguish it just don’t add up to anything: a mother who behaves like a zombie; her father’s curious and unconvincing contrition; Sweety’s cocaine-snorting principal (Tim Blake Nelson in a memorable cameo).
The chief thing the film has to recommend is some fine acting from a cast of mostly young unknowns. But filmmaking is unimaginative and workmanlike. The few lapses into ‘creative’ mise-en-scene are disastrous: confusing fade-out sequences to transition between acts and a jittery hand-held close up to depict Sweety’s encounter with blow.
There’s still much more to come at this year’s Berlinale. In the coming days, Screen Comment will be covering the festival’s most-anticipated films, including Ralph Fiennes’ directorial début “Coriolanus” and Wolfgang Murnburger’s “My Best Enemy.”