BERLIN, Feb 19, (AFP): Hungary’s “On Body and Soul”, a tender love story set in a slaughterhouse, won the Golden Bear top prize Saturday at the Berlin Film Festival, Europe’s first major cinema showcase of the year.
The drama by Ildiko Enyedi, one of four female filmmakers in competition, features graphic scenes in an abattoir set against the budding romance of two people who share a recurring dream.
The win marked an upset at the 11-day Berlinale, where a European refugee comedy by cult Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki, “The Other Side of Hope”, had been the odds-on favourite.
Kaurismaki took the Silver Bear for best director.
Enyedi thanked the festival for embracing her first full-length feature in 18 years but said working conditions in Hungary were growing more difficult under Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
“We live in a more and more absurd country, frighteningly absurd country,” she told reporters after the ceremony, while adding that the state film fund served as a “sort of island”.
“We can work there at relative freedom, peace and we get professional support.”
The runner-up jury prize went to Franco-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis for “Felicite” about a Kinshasa nightclub singer who has to scrape together funds to pay for her son’s treatment after a serious road accident.
South Korea’s Kim Min-Hee, the star of Hong Sang-Soo’s intimate drama “On the Beach at Night Alone” about a failed love affair with a director, won best actress.
And Austria’s Georg Friedrich scooped best actor for his role in the German drama “Bright Nights” as a mourning father who takes his teenage son on a road trip through Norway.
Best screenplay went to another favourite of the festival, “A Fantastic Woman” by Chile’s Sebastian Lelio, starring transgender actress Daniela Vega.
Lelio, joined on stage by Vega, said the film about a singer fighting for her right to attend the funeral of her much older lover was a call for tolerance in trying times.
“We have to fight the dark ages with beauty, with elegance, with poetry,” he said.
Best documentary, awarded for the first time at the festival, was picked up by Palestinian director Raed Andoni for “Ghost Hunting”.
The film recreates a notorious Israeli interrogation centre — and has ex-prisoners re-enact experiences in a bid to free them of their demons.
“We still have 7,000 Palestinians living in those jails… They never get the recognition as I do,” said Andoni, who also served time behind bars in Israel.
Capping a politically charged year at the festival, US documentary jury member Laura Poitras (“Citizenfour”) said filmmakers must stand up for basic freedoms.
“Yesterday the president of the United States described the press as the enemy of the people,” she said, referring to a tweet by Donald Trump on Friday.
“As documentary filmmakers we’re here to say that we’re the enemy of nationalism and of exclusion.”
A seven-member jury led by Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct”, “Elle”) and including US actress Maggie Gyllenhaal (“The Dark Knight”) and Mexican director and actor Diego Luna (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”) selected the main prizes among 18 contenders.
Last year, jury president Meryl Streep gave top honours to Italy’s “Fire at Sea”, a portrait of the refugee crisis on the island of Lampedusa. It is nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary this month.
Presenting the Golden Bear, Verhoeven said the jury “fell in love” with “On Body and Soul”, adding that it was about “two people connecting in quite an amazing way”.
The enigmatic film features Endre and Maria, who by day work in a slaughterhouse but by night have the same dream about a male and a female deer nuzzling in a snowy forest.
Endre, the abattoir’s financial director, has a deformed hand that makes him self-conscious while Maria, the new quality control inspector, is crippled by shyness and an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Enyedi contrasts the growth of their relationship and the petty squabbles at the company with stomach-churning scenes of the cattle bound for the butcher’s hooks.
Film industry bible Variety said the film “blends mournfully poetic whimsy with stabs of visceral brute reality”.
“This film is approachable only with a generous heart,” director Ildiko Enyedi told the audience at the awards ceremony ending the 10-day Berlinale, which showcased 18 films in competition and 403 in sidebar screens.
* Golden Bear for best film: “Testrol es lelekrol” (On Body and Soul), Ildiko Enyedi, Hungary
* Jury Grand Prix Silver Bear: “Felicite”, Alain Gomis, France/Senegal/Belgium/Germany/Lebanon
* Silver Bear for best director: “Toivon tuolla puolen” (The Other Side of Hope), Aki Kaurismaki, Finland/Germany
* Silver Bear for best actress: Kim Min-hee in “Bamui haebyun-eoseo honja” (On the Beach at Night Alone), Hong Sang-soo, South Korea
* Silver Bear for best actor: Austria’s Georg Friedrich in “Helle Naechte (Bright Nights), Thomas Arslan, Germany/Norway
* Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution (editing): Dana Bunescu for Calin Peter Netzer’s “Ana, mon amour”, Romania/Germany/France
* Silver Bear for best screenplay: “Una mujer fantastica” (A Fantastic Woman), Sebastian Lelio and Gonzalo Maza, Chile/US/Germany/Spain
* Alfred Bauer Prize for work of particular innovation: “Pokot” (Spoor), Agnieszka Holland, Poland/Germany/Czech Republic/Sweden/Slovakia
* Best documentary: “Istiyad Ashbah” (Ghost Hunting), Raed Andoni, France/Palestinian Territories/Switzerland/Qatar
* Best first feature film: “Estiu 1993” (Summer 1993) Carla Simon, Spain
* Golden Bear for best short film: “Cidade Pequena” (Small Town), Diogo Costa Amarante, Portugal
* Teddy for best feature film with gay or lesbian context: “Una mujer fantastica” (A Fantastic Woman), Sebastian Lelio, Chile/US/Germany/Spain
* Teddy for best documentary film with gay or lesbian context: “Ri Chang Dui Hua” (Small Talk), Huang Hui-chen, Taiwan
Jury president Paul Verhoeven, a Dutch director and producer, said the seven-member panel had fallen in love with the film because it reminded people of something too often forgotten in everyday life: compassion.
As is traditional in Berlin, this year’s festival also tackled current affairs with entries that reflected on global developments and the dark chaos of the modern world with films and their makers commenting on political events in the United States and elsewhere.
“Thanks to all the filmmakers who tried to save the world with poetry over the last 10 days,” festival director Dieter Kosslick said in a short speech. “You don’t need me to tell you that all is not right with the world now.”
Kosslick said the films picked for the festival this year were designed to show that diversity beats monotony, and to tackle issues such as persecution of homosexuals and discrimination against racial minorities.
He pointedly avoided mentioning the name of US President Donald Trump, who provoked an international uproar by announcing that he was suspending entry to the United States by citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations, saying that this year’s line-up was “protest enough”.
“The president of the United States yesterday called the press the enemy of the people,” said American filmmaker Laura Poitras in presenting the award. “We documentarians are here to say we are the enemies of nationalism and exclusion.”