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Transcendent to trivial: The highs and lows of the Berlinale

Berlinale 2022 was a welcome return of the in-person event. Sadly, the films weren't as good.


What a difference a year makes. Many rejoiced at the thought of an in-person Berlin Film Festival this year, and rightly so: anything is preferable to another digital ‘festival’ where critics and cinemagoers are deprived of a collective experience of watching films together on a big screen. However, the sad fact is that while the Berlinale made good on its bid to reclaim a sense of pre-pandemic normalcy, 2021’s online festival had a much, much stronger line-up of films – especially in Competition. Two Berlinale alums released this month exemplify this drop in quality rather strikingly.

We start off chronologically. The 2021 Berlinale Competition entry What Do We See When We Look At The Sky? is one of the best films of the year. It is, without fear of being accused of hyperbole, a timeless and transcendent modern masterpiece. Aleksandre Koberidze’s Georgian-German co-production is a gorgeous fairytale that explores the magic of chance encounters, as well as celebrating the extraordinary that we so often dismiss as the humdrum of day-to-day life.

Picture the scene. You randomly bump into someone, pick up the book they just dropped and without warning, that’s it: somehow, you’ve fallen in love right then and there. We witness this Bressonian meet-cute between pharmacist Lisa and footballer Giorgi, who arrange a date for the following evening. Disaster strikes when the Evil Eye casts a spell on them and transforms their physical appearances, meaning that when the two cursed would-be lovers show up to the rendez-vous, they no longer recognise each other…

It is, without fear of being accused of hyperbole, a timeless and transcendent modern masterpiece

The lush, transportive cinematography by Iranian DP Faraz Fesharaki makes the Georgian town of Kutaisi feel like a timeless bubble, creating a dream-like haze which unblurs in a gently poetic resolution that can be interpreted as an ode to cinema and its transformative effects. What Do We See When We Look At The Sky is a beautifully romantic and mischievous folktale whose ruminations on identity, perception and the magic of the everyday strike an invigorating chord and represent the very best the Berlinale has to offer.

Comparatively, there’s much less to say about 2022’s Competition entry, Rabiye Kurnaz Vs George W. Bush. This deflating misstep tells the true story of the titular middle-aged Turkish-German woman (Meltem Kaptan) and her fight to release her 19-year-old son, Murat (Abdullah Emre Öztürk), from Guantánamo Bay.

Pandora Film Verleih

While that logline may seem like it’s preparing you for a harrowing drama in the vein of Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian, director Andreas Dresen has decided to play it for laughs. A bold move for this fight-for-justice story, but the feel-good tone here feels exasperatingly shallow and, in the absence of decent satire, at times trivialising of the issues it addresses. Visually resembling a made-for-TV piece, the film is not helped by its prosaic leanings and the fact it seems to exist only as a showcase for German-Turkish comedian and TV presenter Meltem Kaptan. Her spirited performance won her the Best Leading Performance at the festival, and she is without a doubt the main draw of this well-intentioned but flat film. As for the fact that Rabiye Kurnaz Vs George W. Bush bafflingly won the Best Screenplay award, this only shows to what extent the Jury were clearly scrapping the bottom of the barrel in a depressingly underwhelming 2022 Competition selection.

So, for the love of all that’s good and pure, choose to bypass the 2022 vintage and look back to last year’s cream of the crop. And if you choose to resist the charms of What Do We See When We Look At The Sky?, you too will be deserving of the Evil Eye’s dastardly ways.

What Do We See When We Look At The Sky? ★★★★★

Starts Apr 4

D: Aleksandre Koberidze (Georgia, Germany, 2021), with Ani Karseladze, Giorgi Bochorishvili, Oliko Barbakadze.

Rabiye Kurnaz Vs George W. Bush ★ ★

Starts Apr 28

D: Andreas Dresen (Germany, 2022), with Meltem Kaptan, Alexander Scheer, Abdullah Emre Öztürk.