On Fainting, Faces, and the Importance of Being Funny

A Report from the Berlinale, 2017. By S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate
On Body and Soul

On Sunday, 19 February, On Body and Soul (Testről és lélekről) was screened in Berlin after it won the Ecumenical Jury award, as well as the Berlinale's highest award, the Golden Bear. But while the film played to a sold out crowd, four people in the audience fainted during some particularly bloody scenes, causing the screening to be paused for 20 minutes as emergency medical staff came and assisted the stricken. (No lasting medical problems were reported.) Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi's romance-in-an-abattoir film moved many people during the course of the Berlinale, garnering several awards, just as it stirred desire, laughter, tears, and a fair amount of disgust. Light-hearted romance mixed with gruesome scenes in a slaughterhouse and an attempted suicide, as the film tackled issues of mental disability and the quest for intimacy, in both body and soul.

I begin with this anecdote because it reminds us again that film is never just light on a screen, never only two-dimensional forms and colors, never merely an "escape" from the "real world." Instead, films impact our bodies, produce emotions, and even--if much current work in cognitive sciences is to be considered--create empathy. We the audience feel along with the actors, find ourselves transported to the worlds created on the screen, and discover ourselves transported into their spaces. This is true of all films, to varying degrees, and part of how we gauge our appreciation for a film depends on how far into its world we are taken.

Being on the jury for a film festival, and allowing oneself to be transported into films, means risking a potentially radical disorientation. At 9:00 one might find oneself in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and then at 11:00 one heads to Korea, and by 14:00 we move into landscapes of urban Chile. Somewhere in between these worlds we gather to discuss themes of the films with other jury members, grab a quick bite to eat, and end up in the evenings in the desert landscape of the Sonoran desert and into a maternity ward in Manila. It is a physical and emotional whirlwind.

Fortunately, this year we were blessed with an excellent jury to persevere through the geographic and emotional upheavals. Markus Leniger, Hermann Kocher, Zsuzsanna Bányai, Annette Gjerd Hansen, and myself, all worked under the leadership of jury president Charles Martig. Collectively we watched over 40 historical dramas, modern angst-filled family dramas, romances gone astray, straightforward accounts of socio-political tragedies, and experimental approaches to the same. Many, importantly, were inflected with good doses of humor. More on that soon.           


"Your face, Mama. My God, like an armored car." -Tabu, to Félicité, in Félicité (dir. Alain Gomis)

Film has always loved the human face, close up and projected large. Already in 1924, Bela Balázs considered how "In close-ups every wrinkle becomes a crucial element of character and every twitch of a muscle testifies to a pathos that signals great inner events." A few decades later, Roland Barthes spoke of the power of the face of Greta Garbo, who "still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy."

Developmentally, the human psyche becomes attached to the face of our primary caregiver from infancy, and we are biologically programmed to respond to faces throughout our lives. We read emotions, great inner events through the muscles and lines of the faces of those around us. This fact couples with films' ability to show faces in larger than life forms, catching viewers' attention and bringing them into the psychic and emotional space of films. (Such presentations of the human countenance are no stranger to religious traditions: from Christianity's icons to Hinduism's murtis, the face of the divine has been central to devotion.)

A striking number of films in the Berlinale Competition this year focused on faces, as they brought characters from Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe into Berlin film theaters, captured our attention, and thereby took us back into their own worlds. Félicité's face told of the world of Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, full of tragedy and trial as well as dancing and singing. But, like an armored card, her face was not a window into her inner state of being. It was still, and unmoving, for the most part indecipherable. Determined, yes, but what else could be read into it was difficult to ascertain. The audience could only be there alongside her, and not move into her mind.

In similar ways, in the mother-father-daughter triad of Colo (dir. Teresa Villaverde), the father-son dynamics of Bright Nights (dir. Thomas Arslan), the on-the-run narratives of Django (dir. Etienne Comar) and Mr. Long (dir. Sabu), and the questing/waiting in On the Beach at Night Alone (Bamui haebyun-eoseo honja (dir. Hong Sangsoo) the cameras lingered on the main characters' faces at length, and yet rarely were audiences invited in behind their eyes. Neither emotions, nor memories, were readily apparent in the close-ups. This created a curious push-pull. At once attracted by the face, the viewers met resistance when trying to empathize with the characters.

This technique points to a curious trend in filmmaking. There are frequent scenes of the human countenance, yet what is displayed is a face of absolute opacity, as if reflecting only the passivity of characters, paralyzed by life's circumstances. These are not the emotion-ridden faces of Garbo, or Renée Falconetti in "Joan of Arc" (dir. Dreyer), or Emily Watson's "Bess" in Breaking the Waves (dir. von Trier). Instead, these new faces reflect the possibility that there is no ability to feel, or to act, nor for the audience to fully see from the character's point of view. There is nothing to know below the surface. Which may be one of the larger takeaways from the year's films: characters faced with socio-political and personal uncertainties find themselves utterly unable to act in the face of these circumstances. Which may also say something about the global zeitgeist in which we are living, but that's well beyond the scope of this report.

I think it's safe to summarize and say the Ecumenical jury this year did not respond favorably toward much of the passivity. We sought some response, desired some activity even if futile, wished for some glimmer of hope. Sometimes just a smile. Félicité gave us that, but we had to work for it. Bright Nights, in contrast, did not. I don't mean that the jury wanted to cover over the tragedies of death, deportation, disability, or disease, but we looked for characters who faced these fates and worked with what life gives, searching for glimmers of connection, intimacy, a step forward. Again, sometimes just a smile.

And sometimes more than smiles. In our jury meetings, while discussing films and potential awards from the Ecumenical Jury, we often came back to the need for humor. Not the comedy of escapism--laughing as way to stay distant and, ultimately, ignorant--but the comedy of human fulfillment, as deeply embedded in the lives of people, no matter the conditions. Films like On Body and Soul, Pokot (dir. Agnieska Holland), The Other Side of Hope (dir. Aki Kaurismäki) and Una Mujer Fantastica (A Fantastic Woman; dir. Sebastián Lelio) were appreciated for the ways they offered a range of responses to life's circumstances, expressed in faces and actions. From sadness to anger to laughter and back again.


You can read more about this year's awardees and commendations here.