The Focus is on  Past  Winners

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Two tyros, four women directors and a clutch of much-feted auteurs are among the Golden Bear contenders at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. By Saibal Chatterjee

Two debuting filmmakers – Romania’s Adina Pintilie and Paraguay’s Marcelo Martinessi – will be rubbing shoulders with an array of seasoned purveyors of arthouse cinema in the international Competition of the 68th Berlin International Film Festival. Significantly, both are alumni of Berlinale Talents.

Pintilie’s film, one of 19 titles that are vying this year for the festival’s Golden and Silver Bears, is Touch Me Not. It explores the fear of intimacy felt by three people – one woman and two men. In the process, it questions established assumptions about physical touch as an essential aspect of human existence.

Martinessi is here with Las Herederas (The Heiresses), which hinges on a woman of comfortable means who, when she turns 60, realizes that her inherited wealth isn’t enough to sustain the lifestyle she has gotten used to.  This forces her to try and change her world.

The duo of first-time directors is competing against the likes of Wes Anderson, MalgorzataSzumowska, Lav Diaz, Gus Van Sant, Alexey German Jr., Benoit Jacquot and Cedric Kahn, filmmakers whose work not only surfaces frequently at the world’s premier festivals, but also usually bags prestigious awards. For Pintilie and Martinessi, this is going to be one hell of a stiff competition.

Anderson’s stop-motion animated adventure Isle of Dogs, the opening film of the 68th Berlinale, is in the dystopian future. Japan is hit by an outbreak of canine flu. As a result, dogs are quarantined on a remote island. A boy, separated from his dog,emerges as a ray of hope for the isolated canines as he arrives in their midst to look for his pet.

Szumowaska, one of four women with a film competing for the Golden Bear, is back on her happy hunting ground with Twarz (Mug), about a man who undergoes a face transplant and is con-sequently assailed by an identity crisis. It was in Berlin that her 2013 film In the Name Of… won the Teddy Prize for best feature. Two years later, Szumowska took home the Silver Bear for best director for Body.

Diaz is a Filipino auteur who makes films of marathon length and yet holds the world in thrall. His The Woman Who Left won the Golden Lion at the 2016 Venice Film Festival, months after another film of his, A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, bagged the Alfred Bauer Award at the 66th Berlinale. This year, Diaz is competing for Berlin’s top prize with Season of the Devil, a subversive musical set in the Martial Law years.

Gus Van Santis travelling to the 68th Berlin with his first film in three years, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, which premiered in Sundance last month. The film reunites the director with actor Joaquin Phoenix in the role of the provocative quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan, who turned to drawing as therapy after being paralyzed in a car crash at the age of 21.

French director Benoit Jacquot’s 2012 essay Farewell, My Queen was the opening film of the 62nd Berlinale. He is in contention for festival honours in 2018 with Eva, an adaptation of a James Hadley Chase bestseller starring Isa-belle Huppert and Gaspard Ulliel.

St. Petersburg-based Russian director Alexey German Jr. has made the Berlin Competition cut with his sixth feature Dovlatov, which focuses on several days in the life of cult writer Sergei Dovlatov in 1971. The last time when he was here, in 2015, he won an award for cinematography and art direction for the film Under Electric Clouds.

French director Cedric Kahn, who previously took part in the race for the Golden Bear way back in 2004, has his tenth feature, La Priere (The Prayer), in the Berlin Competition this year. It tells the story of a young man who seeks to overcome his ad-diction by joining a remote community run in the mountains by former drug addicts who treat themselves through prayer.

Another filmmaker whose entry will be keenly watched by critics in Berlin is Brazil’s Jose Padilha, who won the Golden Bear in 2008 for Elite Squad. His latest film, 7 Days in Entebbe, is a hostage rescue drama based on the real-life 1976 hijack of an Air France passenger plane on a flight from Tel Aviv to Paris. Although it is in the official lineup of 24 films, it is not in the running for the Berlin awards.

Four other titles – Steven Soderbergh’s first-ever horror film Unsane (shot entirely on an iPhone), Bulgarian director MilkoLazarov’s Aga, Black 47 by Irish filmmaker Lance Daly, and veteran Swiss screenwriter-director Markus Imhoof’s documentary Eldorado – have been accorded similar out of competition status. Aga, incidentally, is the first Bulgarian film in nearly three decades to play in Berlin’s official program.

Eldorado, like the 2016 Golden Bear winner Fire at Sea, is likely to resonate well beyond this year’s Berlinale. Inspired by Imhoof’s personal encounter with an Italian refugee child during World War II, the film probes the way migrants are treated today in Switzer-land, in Italy, and on the Mediterra-nean.

Pintilie and Szumowska are joined by Italy’s Laura Bispuri, with Figlia Mia (Daughter of Mine), and the Berlin born French-Iranian filmmaker Emily Atef, with 3 Days in Quiberon, to complete the quartet of female directors in contention.

Among the other films in Competition are Texan siblings David and Nathan Zellner’s Damsel, starring Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska; Leipzig native Thomas Stuber’s sophomore effort In the Aisles; Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios’s Museo, featuring Gael Garcia Bernal in a stellar role; German helmer Christian Petzold’s Transit; the Swedish film The Real Estate, directed Mans Mansson and Axel Petersen; and Dusseldorf-born Philip Groning’s My Brother’s Name is Robert and He is an Idiot.

The final film to be added to the Competition lineup, Erik Poppe’s Utoya, July 22, probes the 2011 mass shooting by Anders Breivik that shook placid Norway and brought the nation face to face with the tragedy of homegrown terror.

Pickings for Asia have been rather slim in Berlin this year. The only Asian con-tender for the Golden Bear (other than Season of the Devil) is Iranian auteur Mani Haghighi’sKhook (Pig). Those looking for the latest from Asian masters will, therefore, have to turn to the festival’s Panorama section, which includes Kim Ki-duk’s Human, Space, Time and Human and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Yocho (Foreboding).

Two Berlinale Special Galas would be of above-average interest. One is actor and writer Rupert Everett’s directorial debut The Happy Prince, an Oscar Wilde biopic in which he plays the pivotal role. The cast of the film also features Colin Firth and Emily Watson. The film premiered in Sundance.The other is prolific Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s critically and commercially successful The Bookshop, in which a middle-aged widow tries to start a bookshop in a small village and faces opposition from conservative elements in the community.

Saibal Chatterjee is an independent New Delhi-based film critic and writer who has worked on the staff of several leading publications, served on the editorial board of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s volume on Hindi cinema and authored a biography of poet-filmmaker Gulzar.

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