Berlin Diary: Local colour, universal stories

Posted on February 21, 2016


‘Goat’. ‘Little Men’. Ghana’s ‘Thevar Magan’. Plus, a great sight gag about Gérard Depardieu’s weight.

The puzzling thing while watching Andrew Neel’s Goat – which is being advertised as a “frightening image of reality on American campuses” (hazing, in other words; or as we call it, ragging) – is that Brad (Ben Schnetzer) gets into college only about 45 minutes into the movie. So what happens earlier? Two men get into Brad’s car as he’s leaving a party – they say they want a ride, but they pound him to a pulp and steal his ATM card. Back home, Brad keeps looking at his face, a collage of purple and red. Gradually, he puts this behind him and begins school – and it begins all over again, when he seeks to join a fraternity. Looking at the hazing rituals – boxing students into cages and peeing on them, asking them to slap each other – we are invited to wonder why Brad willingly puts himself through the same emasculating, humiliating, aggressive, violence-perpetuating experiences that his muggers put him through. At least, they were doing it for money. These guys are doing it for fun.

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Why is it so funny when a waitress takes Jean (Gérard Depardieu) to her room, and proceeds to reveal her anxieties about the national debt? Sometimes, the only thing you need to say about a movie is that it’s… French. That very Gallic je ne sais quoi suffuses Benoît Delépine and Gustave de Kervern’s road movie Saint Amour, which is more than just a broad comedy about farmers (Jean, his son Bruno) who go wine-tasting. It’s a sideways version of Alexander Payne’s classy Sideways, with the protagonists constantly referred to as peasants, hicks, rednecks, hillbillies. But the film doesn’t mock them. It merely puts them in situations that could get icky and then pulls the rug out from under their feet (and ours) – Jean’s sentimental conversation with his dead wife ends when he realises he’s in the ladies’ room. One way to define that je ne sais quoi is “eccentric.” We get an eccentric hotel manager (the writer Michel Houellebecq, who’s hilarious), an eccentric “prophet” who claims God talks to him at night, an eccentric (and very acrobatic) redhead named Venus who wants a child. Plus, the greatest sight gag ever about Depardieu’s weight.

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Not all movies need to be novels, with “and then?” urgency. Ira Sachs’s exquisitely minimalist Little Men is more of a short story, and it gets going when Brian (Greg Kinnear) moves his family from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and his introverted son Jake – who’d rather draw green skies with yellow stars than join his noisy classmates – finds a friend in Tony, whose mother, an immigrant seamstress, works in the shop below. When the parents begin to quarrel, the boys decide they’ll go silent. But that’s a terribly reductive plot summary. This gorgeous film is about broken dreams, the uncomplicated joys of childhood, a grown man needing validation from children, the human cost of development, working mothers and failed fathers, kids encouraging each other (sometimes doing a better job than parents) in a world where adults are too preoccupied. The penultimate scene, with the boys in a museum, is a heartbreaker. And as the Oscars get nearer, bonus points for casting a black actress as Arkadina in Chekhov’s The Seagull, even if the theatrical production is glimpsed for all of a minute.

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Hosted by

Daniela Norris and TW Pittman’s Nakom, the first-ever Ghanaian film to play at the Berlinale, is the story of medical student Iddrisu (Jacob Ayanaba) who returns to his village when his father passes away. After his days in the city, he’s annoyed seeing his mother without a blouse. “People aren’t free like that anymore,” he snaps. “My classmates will laugh.” The villagers find it strange when he talks about going to medical school in Accra. An elder asks mockingly, “And then to America? And then the moon?” At first, Iddrisu thinks he’ll just stay for the funeral and return to the girlfriend who calls him “my village boy.” But slowly, he finds himself asking kids to go to school, investigating the soil, taking care of a pregnant teenaged cousin, falling for a local girl – he discovers he is a village boy after all. The film follows the classic return-of-the-native trajectory employed by the Godfather and its numerous offshoots, especially Thevar Magan, which set its old-versus-new clash in a similarly patriarchal village. The colours and flavours may be specific, but the story is universal.

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