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BERLIN - Looking at the list of seen films I have yet to write up out of the Berlinale, I'm finding it harder than usual to forge connections between them that would make for a satisfying review roundup. Some have been good. More have been bad. That's about the extent of the narrative at a festival that, while enjoyable as ever, hasn't so far maintained the standard of last year's "Tabu"-"Sister"-"Barbara"-"War Witch"-"A Royal Affair" mini-feast. Only Sebastian Lelio's wonderful "Gloria," meanwhile, seems to have buyers buzzing along with the critics; it'll be a major shock if it doesn't take a significant prize from Wong Kar-wai's jury on Saturday.
So forgive this rather randomly paired duo of reviews, which have little in common beyond their presence in lineup and... well, they're both vaguely Valentine's Day-friendly. I thought I'd at least couch bad news with good, which wouldn't have been the case if I'd opted to pair up two former Best Foreign Language Film winners instead. (More on Danis Tanovic's drab Competition entry "An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker" -- surely a candidate for the most parodic-sounding arthouse movie title of all time -- at a later stage.)
To deliver the bad news first, no major European festival is complete without at least one all-star Europudding -- that reliably po-faced subgenre of international co-production, often with a literary source, that tends to cast everybody and please no one -- in the lineup. And Berlin presented a particularly wobbly one today in "Night Train to Lisbon" (D), an amusingly dunderheaded adaptation of Pascal Mercier's international bestseller of the same title.
It comes to us courtesy of Danish veteran Bille August, the name people tend to forget when listing the elite club of two-time Palme d'Or winners -- largely because, since his late-80/early-90s glory days (during which he also netted an Oscar for "Pelle the Conqueror"), he has morphed into something of a Europudding merchant. We might have assumed he'd peaked, so to speak, in this regard with 1993's riotous Isabel Allende travesty "The House of the Spirits," but we'd have been wrong -- "Lisbon," which reunites the director with "Spirits" lead Jeremy Irons, is at least as cloth-eared and self-regarding a precis of material I'm reliably led to believe has a slightly higher philosophical reach.
The florid-yet-banal tone here, however, is set early, as characters manage not to corpse over such lines as, "We live in the here and now -- everything before is past." Well, quite. Irons stars as Raimund, a fusty classics teacher who, since his divorce, has been living a tweedily solitary existence in Bern, Switzerland. (Already, that Europudding passport is shaping up nicely.) That changes when he rescues a mysterious young woman from a bridge-jumping suicide attempt. She runs away (not, it turns out, to the next-nearest bridge) before he can learn anything about her, but helpfully leaves behind a yellowed old book, enclosing two tickets for a cross-country train that, naturally, is set to leave in just 15 minutes. Raimund acts quickly: Bern, he decides, has proved too much for the man, so the midnight train to Lisbon it is.
Most people, upon taking an impromptu vacation to one of the world’s most beautiful cities, would settle for some leisurely sightseeing and a few drinks at the nearest fado bar, but Raimund has a drearier itinerary planned. The book, it turns out, is an obscure autobiography by by Amadeu de Prado (Jack Huston), a Portuguese doctor turned revolutionary in the last days of the Salazar dictatorship, who eventually died tragically young in the mid-1970s. Raimund, for reasons best known to himself, is sufficiently touched by Prado’s story to harass the man’s remaining relatives and cohorts in pursuit of the full story. Still, it doesn’t take Irons bursting into a rendition of “I’ve Been to Paradise, But I’ve Never Been to Me” to realize that the lonely professor’s quest is a more internal one.
Among the paycheck-hungry faces assisting Raimund in his endeavours are Prado’s still-mourning sister Adriana (an unduly distressed-looking Charlotte Rampling), his politicized German college friend Jorge (Bruno Ganz), and kindly optician Mariana (Martina Gedeck) who, by virtue of being one of the 20-odd residents of the Portuguese capital (extras seem to be in short supply throughout), is the niece of a key figure in the case. Most of these people respond as anyone would to an unidentified Englishman in Donald Rumsfeld glasses making enquiries about a dead loved one: they invite him in for tea and relate the story of Prado’s life, death and affair with fellow radical Estefania (Melanie Laurent, brandishing an aggressive Portuguese accent) in recurring flashbacks.
These may be even more turgid than the present-day action, though at least they aren’t hobbled by the casting department’s curious confidence in the romantic pairing of Irons and Gedeck. If Raimund does indeed find himself, he’s a few steps ahead of the audience, for whom he remains a complete cipher, apologizing repeatedly for his own lack of dynamism. (“You’re not boring,” Mariana reassures him at one point, though she’s pretty much coerced into it.)
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