The 70th Berlin Film Festival: The Power of the Small

Johnny Depp and the “Meryl Streep of Pigs”

BERLIN FILM FESTIVAL 2020–Johnny Depp came to Germany with I Ching on his mind. “There’s a beautiful symbol that means ‘The Power of the Small,’” he said at the press conference for the world premiere of his new film Minamata. “We’re specks of dust. We are the small. So when you have these huge, monolithic opponents in front of you, screaming at it is not going to do anything. The power of the small is that we recognize the issue. Just start chipping away. And people will follow.”

It’s a small world after all. This past weekend, the 70th Berlin Film Festival proselytized for harmony, with globe-trotting cinema that advocated awareness towards the greater good. Minamata addresses deceptively devastating mercury poisoning in a Japanese industrial town. The Italian biopic Hidden Away looks at how painting and sculpture soothed the brain-burning physical and mental illnesses of outsider artist Antonio Liguabue. And Joaquin Phoenix lent his executive-producer name to an immersive animal-rights documentary about a pig named Gunda. C’mon, human population: stop the indifference, cruelty, and pain. Do better!

As Samuel Goldwyn famously said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” There’s nothing wrong with a message movie per se. But people don’t go to movies to get harangued. They go for a great story, well-told. If there’s a message, all the better.

Minamata

That simple insight doesn’t apply to Andrew Levitas’ Minamata, an achingly earnest and surprisingly pedestrian account of chemical pollution in Japan. When a movie about changing the world kicks off with the hoary Ten Years After song “I’d Love to Change the World,” you know subtlety isn’t going to be a selling point.

Depp plays grizzled, 52-year-old photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, and the craziest thing about this casting is that the 56-year-old movie star shockingly looks age-appropriate. His face, weathered and ringed with a silvery beard, is crowned with curly grey hair. And Smith, like Depp, was beset with money problems, a reputation as a mercurial artist, a serious drinking problem and drug abuse. One reporter asked Depp how he tapped into the story of a broken alcoholic who tries to start a new chapter in his life. “I’ve heard that story somewhere before,” a sheepish Depp replied.

Not surprisingly, Depp delivers a committed, visceral performance as the Suntory-soaked photographer. “It’s in the goddamned fish,” he rails, focusing his long-lensed Minolta on the ravaged townspeople of Minamata and the heartless Chisso Chemical Plant doing all the damage.

The real issue is Levitas’ writing and directing, which paints a blandly urgent and groaningly predictable battle between good guys and bad guys. Cue the irascible relationship between Smith and his put-upon boss at Life Magazine Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy). As Hayes, begging for pictures, barks on the phone about looming deadlines, Smith stares glassy-eyed with Oh, the humanity vigor. “I’m being nourished by my own hunger,” he says in one of the many eye-rolling lines Depp actually makes palatable.

What saves the film are Smith’s actual photos, among them Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, the stunning image of a mother washing her deformed child. Breathtakingly staged and re-created in shimmering monochrome, it’s one of the many photographic images that the film rightly reveres and honors with pitch-perfect respect.

Hidden Away

Berlin Film Festival

Art awakens humanity, no less so in Giorgio Diritti’s Hidden Away. His biopic of 20th century Italian painter Antonio Liguabue is a tender, impressionistic look at a man who overcame physical and psychiatric ailments by becoming a renowned painter and sculptor.

From the late ’20s to the early ’60s, Liguabue earned acclaim and wealth for his naïve art: simple, cartoonish renderings with an uncanny emotional depth. All the money in the world still left him alienated, his twisted facial features and mental deficiencies keeping conventional happiness at bay. But the preternatural power of his works endures, unimpeachable proof of a spirit, however hobbled, thrillingly alive.

Gunda

That triumph of the human spirit deserves a broader meaning, now that the one-legged chicken from Gunda has hopped into the hearts of Berlin Film Festival attendees. Victor Kossakovsky wrote, edited, and directed Gunda, his pro-vegan ode to the animal kingdom. And instead of reveling in National-Geographic exoticism, he specifically chose to iris in on farm creatures: the pigs, cows, and chickens that provide the everyday meat that defines industrial food production.

Berlin Film Festival

The film’s name comes from a Norwegian sow named Gunda. In interviews this week in Berlin, Kossakovsky has called her the Meryl Streep of pigs. She is the heart and soul of the wordless documentary, which chronicles the dozen piglets she births, suckles, and raises to maturity.

Shooting in sumptuous black and white, Kossakovsky, who also shares a cinematography credit,  captures Gunda’s attentive mothering with velvety cinematography as though she were a glamorous star from Hollywood’s Golden Age. The entire film is ravishing: the way he lovingly shoots chicken feet makes them look worthy of Louboutins. And the herd of cattle that stampede across the farmlands feel like they’re about to gallop into a Chanel No. 5 ad.

Nowhere in its 90-minute running time is there a human being, although the end provides the unsurprising climax. A demonic deus ex machina in the form of the slaughterhouse truck efficiently collects all of the now-grown piglets and leaves Gunda, heavy with milk, wandering an empty field.

What you read into that last scene depends on your political point of view. Outspoken vegan Joaquin Phoenix signed up as an executive producer after one of the film’s producers, moved by his Oscar acceptance speech, sent him the film. Hearts and minds are the target for this anti-meat agitprop.

Personally, I watched a bunch of free-range animals, humanely treated on a sun-dappled farm, be sent off for the inevitable kill. I enjoyed the film as well as the bratwurst I ate afterwards on the streets of Berlin.

Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. He is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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