(14/03/08) – As usual there was no lack of star power in Berlin. Cozy relationships with Hollywood guarantee big names on the chilly red carpets of the German capital, thanks to the usual inclusion of mainstream U.S. titles in the competition such as There Will Be Blood (Daniel Day Lewis!), The Other Boleyn Girl (Scarlet Johansson! Natalie Portman!) and Elegy (Penelope Cruz!).

This attracts thousands of journalists from all over the world, egged on by their editors to report on the glitz. In turn, this leads to unfortunate situations such as a press junket where a Colombian journalist asked Daniel Day Lewis to explain why Colombians should go to see There Will Be Blood, which left him speechless and the other journalists in the room with very little interview material.

The festival this year openly flirted with musicians and that started with the Rolling Stones attending the opening night screening of the Martin Scorsese documentary about them, Shine A Light On Me. But its absolute zenith was reached on Feb. 13 when Madonna blazed into town to show her debut feature as a director, Filth and Wisdom, which was selected for the Panorama section, a gay and lesbian-friendly haven with an appetite for camp.

This light-hearted feature shows three Londoners, one of whom NY scenester Eugene Hutz, struggling to make it big, some of them by getting in touch with their inner slut. Some smart PR had unleashed the strategy of restricting access to make the film more desirable, so countless critics were shut out of the theatre 30 minutes beforehand and those lucky to interview Madonna had to sign papers promising the fledgling auteur their first-born.

Apparently the film isn’t a total dud, some people seem to like it, and not necessarily Madonna’s fans only. But tellingly, the film has no international sales agent and Madonna loudly announced internet distribution in order not to take advantage of her fabulous blinding star power. Translation: no one in the worldwide industry wants to touch this with a ten-feet pole. Still, the film won first prize for Press Frenzy, stealing the limelight from a genuine auteur, the Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti.

Italian implosion

By February 13, the competition had been so disappointing that some critics found joy in Quiet Chaos by TV director Antonello Grimaldi’s adaptation of Sandro Veronesi’s successful novel of the same name. Listed as a co-writer, main actor Nanni Moretti added some, well, Moretti-ness, to his role as a grieving widower whose initial reaction to the death of his wife is to implode. Grimaldi, who served as director of production of Moretti’s latest film Il caimano, does an excellent job of making that implosion cinematically interesting.

As an actor, Moretti bursts at the seams with bubbly and sometimes terse energy that when toned down, breathes life into his role as the powerful executive Piero Paladino who decides to spend every day in front of his daughter’s school. An unexpectedly graphic sex scene with actress Isabella Ferrari caused much scandal in Italy and other Catholic countries when denounced by an Italian bishop, but the only real obscenity was the glaring lighting, kitschy art direction and the long golden necklaces straddling Ferrari’s substantial and very tan breasts, giving the scene a whiff of ’70s soft porn – a strange note in an otherwise restrained film. As a scene where Piero finally unleashes his emotions – anger mostly – it’s quiet effective.

There were whispers of a Silver Bear as Best Actor for Moretti, but that one ended up going to the Iranian actor Reza Najie in Avaze Gonjeshk-ha (The Song of Sparrows) by Majid Majidi, a cautionary tale about a cabbie who learns and unlearns the power of money. In another surprise move, the Brazilian film Tropa de Elite won the Golden Bear for best film. Much has been said about this controversial choice, which is described more in-depth in this article by Antonio Pasolini (see links on the left).

Rural strugglers

By contrast, one of the strongest films in the competition, Ballast, was anything but agenda-driven. This debut feature by U.S. filmmaker Lance Hammer that had its world premiere in Sundance is impressive thanks to its restrained, yet confident authorial voice. You’d have to go back to Harmony Korine to trace a young American director with such a style of its own. But while Korine’s Gummo (1997) – shot in Nashville with mostly non-professional actors, serves up down-trodden proletariat as a colorful three-ring circus – Ballast portrays rural strugglers in a wintry Mississippi Delta. The actors move around the bleak, grey landscape, trying to survive in a harsh world that doesn’t allow their lives to improve. Hammer, a 2004 participant of the Berlinale Talent Campus, is obviously inspired by the kind of European cinema that takes its time unraveling the narrative without imposing judgments on its characters. What makes Ballast uniquely American are the authentic-sounding speech patterns of its three non-professional actors. Most U.S. indie scripts suffer from an overload of dialogue. The characters in Ballast don’t talk much and when they do, it’s in their own voice, not that of an overachieving Gen Y screenwriter.

Michael J. Smith Sr. plays Lawrence, a local shop-owner who shoots himself when he finds his brother dead from a pill overdose. He is rushed to hospital, where the caring staff saves his life. When he returns to a brother-less house, almost an empty shell that hasn’t returned from the dead yet, the loneliness is palpable. A neighbor drops in to invite him for dinner, but it’s not until Marlee (Tarra Riggs) and her young son James (JimMyron Ross) impose themselves on him that he springs back to life.

Marlee is the estranged girlfriend of his dead brother and James his unsuspecting son. Marlee tries to make ends meet, but her long hours leave James free to befriend local thugs who turn him onto crack. Most of Marlee’s anger is directed at Lawrence, but when unemployment forces her to move onto his brother’s property they have to find a way to make it work. In the end, the semblance of family life is shattered because old hang-ups resurface.

UK cinematographer Lol Crawley brings a Northern European kitchen-sink aesthetic to the already bleak Delta farmlands, the sound design is kept at a minimum and the story conjures up good old-fashioned European social realism. But like with the New York debut feature Man Push Cart (2005) by Paris-trained U.S.-born Ramin Bahrani (Someone To Watch Award at 2008 Independent Spirit Award), social realism in an American context creates an exciting new look into a nation that runs on non-reality-based optimism.

Telling it like it is has long been a staple of African-American blues singers and stand-up comedians who knew they couldn’t afford optimism. But when it’s done by an American feature filmmaker it’s doubly daring. Hammer and Bahrani show us African-Americans, Iraqi and Central American immigrants without any of the agendas that are usually whipped out by US filmmakers from more privileged backgrounds.

Useless Hubris

A random sampling of the Forum and Panorama sections seem to confirm the Hollywood Reporter’s assertion that Berlin’s sidebars have lost their zing. By mentioning that they’ve received death threats from Japanese right-wing hardliners, one of the makers of the documentary Yasukuni tried to whip up some interest in his film in his pre-screening introduction. But the Chinese-made film that investigates the controversial shrine that glorifies Japanese soldiers who butchered Chinese soldiers is practically unwatchable because of its lengthy amateur-grade footage of said aging right-wingers making a lot of noise at the shrine in the form of bull-horn speeches and arthritic military rituals. The shrine is associated with the production of dedicated samurai swords and the film tries to define Japan’s warrior spirit by following the last-remaining sword smith, but he stays silent on the subject as the footage of the noisy extremists continues.

The Panorama can always count on a loyal gay, lesbian and transgender audience and so one of the Berlinale’s largest theatres was completely full for the screening of Corazones de mujer, an Italian roadmovie about the Moroccan crossdresser Shakira and a young bride whose virginity he plans to have restored by a trusted doctor in Morocco. The directors Pablo Benedetti and David Sordella prided themselves on having shot the film by the seat of their pants with no money and it shows. Shakira, played by Aziz Ahmeri, a Turin-based restaurant owner, has some charisma, but there is very little that can redeem this technically ramshackle debut. Making a feature film on the fly simply means disrespect to the audience and useless hubris because one would have to be a cinematic genius to create a 90-minute long film without a decent script and/or technical crew.

Suprisingly similar in narrative is the Dutch teenage film Dunya & Desie (pictured) , which had its world premiere in the festival’s Generation 14plus competition. The re-baptized children’s film section of the Berlinale showed a large number of features that were a breath of fresh air compared to the overwrought mediocrity in the rest of the festival.

Dunya & Desie by Dana Nechushtan is based on an Emmy-Award nominated TV series. Its two heroines are confidently played by Eva van de Wijdeven and Maryam Hassouni, one of this year’s Shooting Stars – young European actors who receive extra attention during the Berlinale. Their dynamic revolves around the tension between Dunya’s traditional Moroccan background and Desie’s Dutch white trash provenance. This tension comes to a head when they travel through the Moroccan countryside together. Their highly entertaining banter, written by Robert Alberdingk Thijm, is funny and slightly campy, especially when coming from the potty-mouthed Desie. The teenage audience in Berlin’s Babylon theatre loved the film – a thankfully vibrant note to end a dreary, tired edition of the Berlin film festival.