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The Berlinale Blog: O quality, where art thou?

After two truly dismal Competition entries, Giovanni Marchini Camia is starting to worry – where are this year's masterpieces?

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It’s true that the Berlinale Competition is always a bit of a mixed bag. However, with a third of the films competing for this year’s Golden and Silver Bears already out and none of them living up to any of last year’s top prize winners, it is starting to get worrying.

Yesterday’s Gold by Thomas Arslan was such an abysmally bad film, one could be excused for suspecting programmer bias in favour of German productions to have played a role in its inclusion amongst what is supposed to be the festival’s cream of the crop. The opening scene already set the tone for what was to come. It is 1896 and a group of pioneers are prospecting for gold in a stream of the Klondike River. One of them calls his companions to him – he has found something. As the others huddle around, the camera slowly hovers over the pan in his hands to reveal a nugget of gold of such preposterous size, the whole audience burst out laughing. This was only the first of many instances in which the film aimed for momentousness and elicited hilarity instead. Another was a scene in which the leg of one of the main characters is amputated with a handsaw – yes, that’s how off the mark this film is.  

The plot involves a group of German immigrants making the perilous five-week journey from Ashcroft to Dawson in search of the legendary gold fields. Well, actually, the characters keep saying it’s perilous and everybody they meet tells them they’re insane for attempting their chosen route, however, there is never evidence of any peril whatsoever: really, all we see is the group leisurely trotting across very pleasant looking plains and forests under perfect weather conditions – five weeks without a drop of rain in British Columbia? What lucky campers!

The film doesn’t manage to inspire the least interest in its characters, every element is but a composite of Western film clichés and the plot is so thin that with almost two hours of running time, the audience is subjugated to inordinate stretches of simply watching characters ride their horses. Admittedly, the nature is gorgeous, however, the lacklustre cinematography has no clue how to capture it. It’s depressing to imagine what a Sergio Leone or John Ford could have done with the same budget and locations.

And then there was Fredrik Bond’s film debut, The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, starring Shia LaBeouf as the titular Charlie. After his mother dies, Charlie is visited by her ghost, who advises him to go to Bucharest. The script doesn’t even pretend there’s a reason for choosing the Romanian capital. However, this being a trashy and mainstream American film, it makes perfect sense: after films like Eurotrip and The Hostel set the example, Eastern Europe has become the signifier of choice for a freewheeling playground of parties, sex and violence, which is exactly what Charlie finds as soon as he steps off the plane.

Thus far, Bond has primarily worked as a director of highly successful commercials. The film’s perfunctory plot, involving Charlie’s falling in love with a violent gangster’s wife, merely serves as a backdrop for a long string of set pieces in which Bond’s indisputable talent for exhilarating and ultra-stylized action scenes is allowed to shine (and over the course of which Shia LaBeouf’s face is turned into an ever bloodier pulp). Everything in this movie is a self-conscious caricature and the star-studded cast, which also includes Evan Rachel Wood, Mads Mikkelsen, Til Schweiger, Rupert Grint, Melissa Leo and Vincent D’Onofrio, clearly relish their preposterous roles. Though overstaying its welcome by a good half hour, it’s not an unenjoyable film. Ultimately, however, it’s but a vapid, testosterone-fueled exercise in style that may well turn out to be a commercial success, but is clearly out of place in the Competition section of one of the most highly regarded film festivals in the world.