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That Spike Lee's Chi-raq boasted more verve and sheer energy and engaged hot topics better than most of the material selected for the Berlin competition wasn't entirely surprising; the competition does tend to be somewhat better behaved than the sidebars. But it was clear, just from the applause at the end of its press screening, that Gianfranco Rosi's Fuocoammare was destined to be the winner of the festival's top honour.
The Berlinale prides itself on its political, activist stance, and with the refugee crisis front and center in the news, the Italian documentary filmmaker's look at the Italian island of Lampedusa, for nearly a quarter of a century at the heart of illegal immigration from the impoverished African lands of Eritrea or Sudan into Europe, was the right film at the right time. Mr. Rosi's carefully composed film has all the equivocal hallmarks of his previous work, teetering constantly on the high-wire between sincerity and effect, but it's a beautifully shot and intelligently presented piece suggesting that even in Lampedusa the worlds of Europe and the refugees never really touch. It's a massive step up from his disappointing Venice winner Sacro GRA, and whether you appreciate or not the work it's undeniable that Fuocoammare is the sort of film that gets people talking.
(As is Israeli provocateur Avi Mograbi's Between Fences, about the dehumanising process by which Israel pretends to take care of African refugees but actually confines them to a desert camp. But Between Fences, following a theatre workshop meant to give these people their humanity back, seemed to be a minor work, intelligent as ever in its questioning of Israel's social paradoxes but slighter than his usual.)
The only competition work more divisive than Mr. Rosi's documentary was Jeff Nichols' almost-but-not-quite Spielberg homage Midnight Special, an ambitious if underachieving attempt at melding the director's Southern ruralist sensibilities and matters of faith and hope in the future with a genre framework of a sci-fi thriller. Most observers spotted John Carpenter's Starman as a reference, but the obvious starting point is Mr. Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with a dash of his earlier chase thriller The Sugarland Express thrown in for good measure.
Powered by the well-matched intensity of Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton, Midnight Special is a less accomplished work than Take Shelter, the film that really put Mr. Nichols on the map, but it's proof that you can make a genre film that doesn't sacrifice depth and smarts on the altar of visual effects (of which there aren't that many, and those that are are expertly deployed.) It was as passionately defended as it was dismissed, and its stubborn absence from Warners' international schedules means the studio doesn't really quite know what to do with it, but it's by no means a misfire.
Iranian hyphenate Mani Haghighi's A Dragon Arrives! would have probably joined Mr. Rosi and Mr. Nichols in the divisive sweepstakes, had it not had the dubious honour of being the very last film to screen in competition. By this time festival fatigue has set in and all bets are pretty much made, but if it had screened earlier this deliberate bucking of the Iranian trend for tasteful realist social drama might have gotten the attention it deserved. Utterly deranged even if ultimately disappointing, A Dragon Arrives! is closer in tone and theme to Ana Lily Amirpour's cult hit A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Like Midnight Special, it walks the high wire between genre and meta-fiction, a deconstructed and reconstructed mystery set around the mysterious disappearance in 1965 of a police detective, a sound engineer and a geologist while investigating strange events in the island of Qeshm.
Mr. Haghighi shifts between lushly coloured, strikingly widescreen vistas and consumer-camera mockumentary with a zip and energy highlighted by Christophe Rezai's beatbox-exotic score. But it makes the fatal error of moving between too many narrative levels to the point of losing the audience, its mysteries remaining just that - mysteries, or rather, MacGuffins used as sheer pretexts for a self-perpetuating Chinese-box Arabian Nights meta-fictional structure. It's a genuinely engaging picture, but one that seems to lose itself down the rabbit hole.
[to be continued...]