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13/02/2008

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Selected highlights from the Berlin film festival

Living two truths: Jose Padilha's "Tropa de Elite" (Competition)

An elite cop as protagonist-narrator, gun in hand, in the favelas of Rio de Janiero? Sound like an Egoshooter film? It's anything but. But - and this is what makes the film so intelligent - it's also far off being the opposite. This film deliberately delivers the audience up to a hero whose behaviour is impossible to justify. It not only forces one to endure acts of violence; it almost makes one sympathise with much of what he does. Almost - because of course this film forces one to fight this sympathy and not lose one's reason when confronted by social situations which the director Jose Padilha convincingly and consistently describes as hopeless.

And so on into the Foucault seminar. Members of a youth NGO actually do sit about discussing Michel Foucault's "Discipline and Punishment" and the micro-effects of power which can't be escaped even by pitching oneself against them. Among the students is a man who is prepared to do anything to side with the good guys, Andre Matias: black, intelligent, police officer. Of course he doesn't tell the other students this. Andre lives in two worlds, two truths, to the point of schizophrenia. He starts to feel the pull of two opposing powers and the film is also the story of the fight for his soul.

"Tropa de Elite" describes one system in a network of systems which tend to be connected to one another through corruption rather than law and order. The well-meaning NGO for example is involved in drug dealing, simply because no one can enter the favelas without the green light from the drug barons. And above all, the police is corrupt in ways unimaginable to any film director, which is why Jose Padilho consulted a police officer from the elite BOPE corps while writing the script.

Through the eyes and words of Capitao Nascimento (Wagner Moura), the first person narrator hero, we learn about the special police unit from the inside. Nascimento is about to become a father and wants to leave the unit alive, so he needs to find a successor. His two options are the law student and NGO member Andre Matias (Andre Ramiro) and his best friend Neto. The film accompanies them on their way from straightforward police recruits through the elite training camp where they are humiliated and dehumanised. The story of the film is about a man who starts off as a human and becomes a killer, an elite cop who forces himself to believe that he's siding with the good.

Jose Padilha whisks the viewer, without manipulative intent, into the centre of complexity, using scenes and situations where it is impossible to distinguish between right and wrong because everything is wrong. The film is shot in a documentary style but without the usual "fake and shake" effects. Not a single scene follows film conventions: there are no establishing shots, no double or triple angles on a scene from various camera positions. No instructions for the actors, no marks on the floor. And not a single written dialogue. The actors completely improvise every scene having been given a rough outline of their situation.

The team spent three months rehearsing before filming began; the actors playing cops even did some BOPE training. The result of this representational strategy is a long shot from naive authenticity. The mixture of fast-paced documentary and consistent alienation through the choice of perspectives is disorienting in the most illuminating way. The film has been accused of being BOPE propaganda but no film so consistently distances itself from the simplifications of propaganda than "Tropa de Elite".

Ekkehard Knörer

Jose Padilha: "Tropa de elite - The Elite Squad". Starring Wagner Moura, Caio Junqueira, Andre Ramiro. Brasil, Argentina 2007, 118 mins.


Pure joy: Johnnie To's "Sparrow" (Competition)


Four pickpockets in Hongkong are hoodwinked by a girl from the People's Republic. She is the lover of an old man who won't let her go. When our four heroes hear this, they decide to rescue her from her plight. The old man is rich, he has her passport, and he was also a pickpocket once upon a time. Hongkong, a sparrow, a few umbrellas and music (from Xavier Jamaux and Fred Avril) which is reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn comedies.

The umbrellas play a role in a scene which seems almost to be filmed in slow motion. One of the thieves, (Simon Yam) stands at a red light at a pedestrian crossing, the passport in the pocket of his suit jacket. On the other side of the street are the men who are following the old man to steal his passport. The light turns green and they walk towards him. Eyes, faces, tension, the rain drops on the umbrellas, a few rapid movements. Then it's all over. But this takes several minutes. You breathe every breath they take, feel every movement watch every raindrop fall.

But this is no elegantly choreographed ballet. "Sparrow" is not even a perfect genre film with irresistibly inventively staged pickpocketing scenes. To be quite honest the film often borders on slapstick. This film isn't out to prove anything. It is just a gift of pure joy.

Anja Seeliger

Johnnie To: "Man Jeuk - Sparrow". Starring Simon Yam, Kelly Lin, Lam Ka Tung, Lo Hoi Pang. Hongkong, China 2007, 87 mins.


Randy old rabbits:
Isabel Coixet's"Elegy" (Competition)

Isabel Coixet (photo), the Spanish director and script writer whose films are always a meditation on age and death, meets Philip Roth, a man obsessed with his own demise, but brilliantly so. "Elegy" is a lively mix of Madrid and Manhattan and one that should be enjoyed as a DVD on the sofa with a glass of red wine.

In the film "Sexy Beast" Ben Kingsley proved that he had an animal lurking inside him. So he made a perfect choice to play the lead in a fim based on a novel called "The Dying Animal," in which the world of predatory Professor Kespesh falls apart when the chase for young student Consuela (Penelope Cruz) leads to genuine feelings of love.

Roth's laconic New York cynicism is one of the main reason's to see this film. "I talk about Goya and Kafka but really I only want to fuck them." Or, "When a man sleeps with a woman, it is revenge for all the times he has suffered defeat in his life." The confessions of a man, who in an honest moment admits to a female friend (also a former student) that he has "behaved like a teenager his whole life."

The aging sex beast has a sidekick who is just as perfectly cast. His old friend George, the marriage-wrecking poet played by a jocular Dennis Hopper. Their conversations about the eternal beauty of women and their own transience flow as refreshingly in the cafe or the squash court. But this energy gets lost in the second half to create space for a lugubrious seriousness. Kespesh almost gets buried in an avalanche of blows of fate. Illness, death and loneliness all at once. And then his son goes and tells him that he failed as a father.

This second half, underpinned by cellos, is certainly moving but I missed the grouchiness of the first half. And Kingsley and Hopper might be perfect as randy old rabbits but Penelope Cruz as a precocious student? Sorry love, you're just too old.

Christoph Mayerl

Isabel Coixet: "Elegy". Starring Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Clarkson. USA 2007, 108 mins.


Burning the midnight oil: P.T. Anderson's "There Will be Blood"

And a few quick words about "There Will be Blood" which is released on German screens today. Daniel Day Lewis plays the Daniel Plainview, who over 3 decades and 158 minutes goes from passionate entrepreneur, to brilliant but ruthless businessman and finally becomes a free radical crazy with nothing to lose. The only person who can get to him in this state is a preacher who wants to get his hands on some of his money, and their conflict becomes a maelstrom to which P.T. Anderson gladly hands over his film.

Three tips for watching. Firstly, make sure you have a big screen. Secondly, you need good speakers . The rumbling of the bass when the oil starts running through the rock is a full-body experience. And thirdly, try to watch the film when you're hungry. This might not help the average wage earner to really understand why Plainview never gives up. But at least you will have the feeling of being gnawed at by something the whole time.

Christoph Mayerl

Paul Thomas Anderson: "There Will Be Blood". Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J.O'Connor, Ciaran Hinds, Dillon Freasier. USA 2007, 158 mins.
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