There is still a sense of not enough time and too much time when the time comes to talk about a festival like Berlin. Not enough time to see all you want to see; too much time spent seeing films to think them through thoroughly. You could easily see four films a day (at the very least) by judiciously mixing and matching from the main competition and the various sidebars. Of course, having to cover a festival professionally in these 24-hour-news-cycle days limits what you can do with this embarrassment of riches - you've barely just come out of the screening and are already being asked to pontificate on what you just saw. The irony, of course, is that, technically, festival films are the ones that actually need the time and space to be considered at length.
Returning to the festival after being absent in 2015 for personal reasons, my Berlin '16 was shaped mostly by the need to file daily for the day job on the most important works present for a general-interest audience, as well as on the particularly strong Portuguese presence this year, while dipping my toe here and there at the sidebars. From the homeland contingent, my personal favourite remains Salomé Lamas' meticulously thought-out Eldorado XXI, a combination of hands-off, observational documentary and thought-provoking essay shot on location at the forbiddingly remote Peruvian mining village of La Rinconada, that comes off like a post-apocalyptic near-future at the crossroads of Werner Herzog and Wang Bing.
Premiering at the Forum, like Ms. Lamas' demanding feature, was Vienna-based director Hugo Vieira da Silva's loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novella An Outpost of Progress, a wryly ironic indictment of imperial colonization shot in the jungles of Angola; matching the writer's enveloping prose with an almost effortlessly seductive, poisonous mood (shot by Matías Piñeiro's usual DP Fernando Lockett), it's the best film so far by this rare director, though it crashes out spectacularly in a number of ill-advised choices in the last half hour.
I wasn't much impressed by Ivo Ferreira's stately filming of novelist António Lobo Antunes' letters home from the colonial wars in the late 1960s and early 1970s, premiering in the official competition. Shot by João Ribeiro in an exquisite black and white that reminds of Pedro Costa or Béla Tarr, Letters from War tries too hard to match Mr. Lobo Antunes' baroque, free-associating torrent of words and collapses under the weight of an over-burdening offscreen narration; its stately visuals and logorrheic voiceover seem to be at loggerheads with each other, to paradoxically dull yet excessive effect. Certainly it was one of the best-looking features on offer in what was a less striking competition than I expected or that the names on hand suggested.
I skipped both the obvious prestige jobs Berlin likes to put in the competition - this year Vincent Pérez's euro-pudding adaptation of Hans Fallada's anti-Nazi novel Alone in Berlin and Michael Grandage's star-powered literary melodrama Genius - and the out-of-competition additions to the official line-up that seem to exist merely to feed the market, most of which directed by second-tier filmmakers and never really go beyond middling releases or direct-to-VOD. Stuff like Kiwi director Lee Tamahori's Mahana or Dominik Moll's News from Planet Mars seem to appear more on the Berlin schedule than on comparable major festivals while usually receiving little to no attention, and the festival's proven track record of unfortunate choices (anyone remember the utterly inexplicable Jennifer Lopez vehicle Bordertown a few years back?) usually make it easy for me to pass them by.
I made, however, a point of breaking this rule for Spike Lee's incendiary Chi-raq and boy, was I glad I did. Mr. Lee can be a maddeningly irregular director, capable of the disastrous and of the dazzling, and behind its devil-may-care, take-no-prisoners attitude, Chi-raq - an inner-city musical update of Aristophanes' classic Greek farce Lysistrata set on the gang-infested South Side of Chicago and designed as a political tract for the defense of African-America communities -- is his strongest, most heartfelt film in ages: uncompromising, outrageous and, above all, riotously fun, even if it doesn't always hold together coherently. It's Do the Right Thing updated for the #blacklivesmatter 21st century, but it's also proof of life for a director that I haven't seen this enthused since the intricately constructed made-to-order studio thriller Inside Man.
[to be continued...]