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The Berlinale Blog: Blowing the Competition out of the water

Day three offers two documentaries: Competition-selected Fuocoammare (Fire At Sea) and Forum’s Tempestad. One appears to be angling for an award; the other poetically and quietly mesmerizes. Proof that one shouldn’t neglect the Forum section...

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Documentaries are frequently some of the most powerful, style-spanning films out there. They have the capacity to expose the viewer to lesser-known aspects of life and often trump fictional releases in terms of captivating thrills. Day three of the Berlinale has offered up two such films.

Gianfranco Rosi’s Fuocoammare (Fire At Sea) tackles the current European migrant crisis and does so by focusing on the Italian island of Lampedusa. Located 70 miles from Tunisia and 120 miles from Sicily, the small isle has over the years become one of the most dangerous migrant routes in the world. It is a place where the sea simultaneously provides for the fishing community and takes away the lives of hundreds of refugees who wash up on its quiet shores. Rosi runs with this contrasting dichotomy by alternating troubling images and audio recordings with the quiet everyday lives of the island’s inhabitants, specifically that of a small boy, Samuele Pucillo.

Pucillo’s magnetic screen presence is the film’s strongest asset and without his humorous self-diagnoses, adult-like speech patterns and impeccable table manners, Fuoccoammare would be noticeably weaker. Other positives include Rosi’s evocative images and subtle symbolism. His direction doesn’t cross the line into didactic overkill, with many metaphorical elements, such as Samuele’s ophthalmologic diagnosis (“You must force the brain to use the lazy eye”), left open to interpretation.

That being said and without wanting to appear cynical, Fuocoammare feels like it’s angling for the top award: its topical nature is Berlinale-tailored and while it doesn’t reinvent the wheel as far as the documentary genre is concerned, it will speak to those wanting to make a political statement as the festival comes to a close. You heard it here first…

A stronger documentary is Tatiana Huezo’s entry in this year’s Forum selection.

For her second full-length documentary after the multi-award winning El Lugar Más Pequeño, Huezo has masterfully alternated two narratives in a textured film that examines the consequences of organized crime in Mexico and what mothers will sacrifice in order to protect the ones they love.

Tempestad opens with a voiceover of Miriam’s testimony. She is wrongfully accused of people trafficking and sent to a violent, self-governed prison run in cartel territory. She relates that, once she understood not only her role as a “pagador” (someone who pays for the crimes of another) but also the corruption at the heart of the prison system, she would do whatever it took to be reunited with her son. In parallel, we have the testimony of Adela, who works in a circus and whose daughter has been abducted. With no knowledge of whether her child is alive or not, she tells of her family’s efforts to pursue the search and how their efforts have been met with threats from the corrupt authorities.

Both are victims of the same rotting system but Huezo approaches these two voices differently: Miriam’s harrowing ordeal is superimposed over seemingly discrepant images depicting scenes of everyday life which seem to chronicle a journey from the North to the South of Mexico. The filmmaker leads the spectator to focus on the voice, the musicality of language and the way beauty clashes with some of the nightmarish images her story conjures up. Contrastingly, Adela’s narration is approached in a more recognizably documentarian manner, including scenes in which she appears.

The merging of the two styles can be patience-testing and even when the narratives become subtly intertwined, it isn’t until the dirge-like final shot that the scope and emotional-intricacies of the film can be truly felt. The disembodied sequences of the first narrative come to make sense and show to what extent the director’s assured vision makes Tempestad so much more than a stylish creative exercise.

The evocative cinematography and Leonard Heibun’s minimalistic score contribute to this poetic and unconventionally immersive film, one which reveals its secrets in beautifully edited morsels.

Without hint of hyperbole, a spellbinding film. Not one to miss.

Fuocoammare (In Competition) | Feb 14, 09:30, 18:00, Friedrichstadt Palast; Feb 21, 17:30, HDBF

Tempestad | Feb 14, 22:15, CinemaxX4; Feb 15, 13:45, CineStar 8; Feb 21, 19:30, CinemaxX 4