‘Alcarràs’ wins top prize at Berlin Film Festival
By Thomas Rogers
The top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Golden Bear for best feature film, was given earlier this week to “Alcarràs,” a contemplative work about peach farmers in a village in northern Spain.
“Alcarràs,” the melancholic second feature by Spanish director Carla Simón, who comes from a family of farmers, features nonprofessional actors. The film focuses on a family that has been cultivating its land since the Spanish Civil War and is forced to make way for a company wanting to build a solar farm on the property.
In an emotional acceptance speech, Simón dedicated the award to the modest farmers “who cultivate the land every day to bring the food to our plates” in a way that is “a form of resistance.”
This year’s jury was led by director M. Night Shyamalan and included Danish actress Connie Nielsen and Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the Japanese director of this year’s Oscar-nominated “Drive My Car.”
The runner-up prize was given to prolific South Korean filmmaker Hong Sangsoo for “The Novelist’s Film,” a subtle, conversation-driven drama focused on a series of encounters by a writer interested in making a movie. Hong had won the award for best director at the Berlinale (as the festival is known in Germany) two years ago. A special jury prize was awarded to “Robe of Gems,” a debut film set in rural Mexico from director Natalia López.
The award for best director was given to Claire Denis for “Both Sides of the Blade,” a searing melodrama starring Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon. Laila Stieler won the best screenplay award for the German film “Rabiye Kurnaz vs. George W. Bush,” a forceful drama about a Turkish German woman’s real-life legal battle to have her son released from detention in Guantánamo Bay. The latter film also garnered the festival’s best lead actor award for Meltem Kaptan, a Cologne-based comedian who portrayed Kurnaz. Best supporting actor was given to Laura Basuki of “Before, Now & Then,” for playing a woman who befriends her lover’s wife in 1960s Indonesia.
This year’s festival had been dominated by concerns about the coronavirus. Unlike the Sundance Film Festival, which moved online in January, the Berlinale, co-directed by Carlo Chatrian and Mariette Rissenbeek, stuck with an in-person event, including red carpets, news conferences and public screenings, albeit with reduced capacities and stringent testing and mask protocols. (In a compromise, the festival’s trade fair, the European Film Market, was moved online.)
The decision prompted pushback from some observers, who worried that, despite the measures, the festival would spur infections and burden Berlin’s hospitals amid a wave of omicron cases of the coronavirus. In a commentary for RBB, a public broadcaster, one critic argued that attending the festival would be akin to playing a game of Russian roulette. Writing in the newspaper Die Zeit, another commentator, journalist Wenke Husmann, argued that the decision “sounded like it was making a mockery” of public health concerns.
Correspondingly, the mood at the opening gala last week was subdued and a touch defensive, with organizers, politicians and entertainment figures making impassioned pleas from the stage about the importance of going to the movies. In a speech, the German culture minister, Claudia Roth, argued that the experience of attending movie theaters was important for social cohesion and democracy, and that, “Without this, we don’t just lose one another, we lose ourselves.”
Only eight positive tests were registered among accredited attendees by the festival’s testing sites as of Sunday, according to the Berlinale press office. Organizers said Monday that demand for tickets was high, with a robust 75,000 sold.
But, perhaps inevitably, the festival has felt less spontaneous and glamorous than past iterations. Many of the biggest names from the lineup, including Sigourney Weaver and Isabelle Adjani, opted to stay away. Isabelle Huppert, who was expected to travel to the festival Tuesday to accept an honorary Golden Bear for lifetime achievement, had to remain in Paris at the last minute after testing positive for the coronavirus. A ban on parties also robbed industry attendees of the ability to network and schmooze.
Critics have been generally positive about this year’s selection, which included buzzy new works by British art-house favorite Peter Strickland and Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl. But because many of the projects were made amid pandemic restrictions, some felt smaller in scale than the usual festival offerings, with limited casts and contained sets.
The Berlinale’s opening movie, François Ozon’s intimate “Peter von Kant,” an homage to German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, was shot entirely on a Paris back lot, for instance. Denis’ “Both Sides of the Blade” was filmed during a lockdown and largely takes place in a single apartment. Denis told The Hollywood Reporter that the project had been conceived as a replacement when the pandemic forced the postponement of another, more expansive shoot by the director.
Nevertheless, most observers ultimately praised the decision by the festival to go ahead. The Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper argued that, with its combination of testing and masks, “this year’s Berlinale could be a model for future large cultural events.” Its organizers, however, are most likely hoping that by the next edition of the festival, in 2023, such concerns will be a thing of the past.