Berlin Film Festival: From Cate Blanchett to Hillary Clinton, powerful women were behind the best of 2020

Stephen Dalton

A parade of stars, some with two legs and others with four, have trotted through Berlin this week as the city celebrates the 70th edition of its annual film festival. Cate Blanchett, Javier Bardem, Sigourney Weaver, Riz Ahmed, Johnny Depp, Bill Nighy and more have all braved the freezing rain on the red carpet. And yet the festival’s biggest celebrity guest, as befits a cinematic summit that prides itself on political engagement over escapist entertainment, was not Hollywood royalty but Washington aristocracy.

Hillary Rodham Clinton was promoting director Nanette Burstein’s four-hour TV documentary series, Hillary. Though unashamedly partial, Burstein’s screen biography is still admirably thorough, probing Clinton’s marital problems, electoral failures and prickly relations with Bernie Sanders.

However, the former Democratic presidential contender was diplomatic about Sanders in Berlin. “I have my own feelings about him and whether he can win or not,” Clinton said on Tuesday. “But if he is the nominee I will support him, because I think any Democrat is better than Donald Trump.”

She also used her visit to affirm the role of film and TV in countering Trumpian populism. “Culture could not be more important at this moment,” she said. “The other side plays on fear, anxiety, insecurity, resentment and grievance. It’s really critically important to fight back against this very strong tide.”

Clinton’s appearances drew a few boos among the cheers, but her message of feminist empowerment struck a timely chord. In their inaugural year, the festival’s new directors, Carlo Chatrain and Mariette Rissenbeek, have trimmed the programme while promising a more progressive agenda. They also pledged to work towards gender parity, which helps explain why this year’s schedule was packed with strong female stories acted, written and directed by women.

Political details: Hillary and Bill Clinton in the TV documentary series Hillary

Reinforcing this mood was the news that Harvey Weinstein had been found guilty of rape in New York. One of the films in the programme, Kitty Green’s indie drama The Assistant, is about a young woman working for a bullying boss clearly based on the movie mogul. “We may be rid of Harvey Weinstein, but the culture that keeps these predators in power and allows them to do what they do exists still,” Green says. “We need to unpick that a little more.”

The opening film, Canadian director Philippe Falardeau’s My Salinger Year, was a disappointingly tepid adaptation of Joanna Rakoff’s 2014 memoir, but it does feature some sparky performances, notably from Weaver as a domineering New York literary agent.

A much more satisfying portrait of dysfunctional female friendship in the world of books came in Josephine Decker’s Shirley, a semi-fictional biopic about the horror author Shirley Jackson, with a juicy, vanity-free star turn from Elisabeth Moss. Blanchett was at the festival to launch her first high-end television project, Stateless, a classy six-parter about intertwined refugee stories in contemporary Australia.

Besides co-creating this Netflix-bound saga with Elise McCredie and Tony Ayres, Blanchett also plays a supporting role opposite Dominic West as half of a comically sinister, ballroom-dancing couple who run a clammy New Age cult. Blanchett said the series was about “not just statelessness from a legal and physical perspective, it’s in a poetic sense. It’s about people without a core identity.”

In contrast, the male-centric films in Berlin have mostly been snapshots of masculinity in crisis. One of the most intriguing was Bassam Tariq’s Mogul Mowgli, co-written by its star, Wembley-born Ahmed. Drawing on his musical career, Ahmed plays Zed, a British-Pakistani rapper who suffers a life-changing health scare during a rare family homecoming. Though a little too opaque, this drama is a rewarding exploration of multicultural identity.

Highlight: Riz Ahmed co-wrote this year's Berlin entry Mogul Mowgli (Getty Images)

Troubles of a more existential kind afflict Dafoe’s antihero Clint in Siberia, his fifth collaboration with cult director Abel Ferrara and hugely self-indulgent and gloomy, but still one of Ferrara’s most original films in years.

Bardem also suffers in British director Sally Potter’s experimental drama, The Roads Not Taken. His mind scrambled by a dementia-like condition, Bardem’s New York writer hero Leo mentally channel-surfs through the paths his life might have taken, from tragedy-tinged marriage in Mexico to self-imposed exile in Greece. It’s an interesting idea but a muddled, underpowered film.

Depp brought a whiff of swashbuckling glamour with his passion project Minimata. Depp clearly relished playing W. Eugene Smith, a boozy Life magazine photojournalist who travels to Japan for a story on the victims of a notorious case of industrial Mercury poisoning. Directed by Andrew Levitas, Minimata is a little too earnest, but well acted and finely crafted, with Nighy and Welsh mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins also in the Brit-heavy cast.

Of course, not every film at the Berlinale has been so worthy. Italian director Matteo Garone’s live-action Pinocchio, with Roberto Benigni as Gepetto, is a sumptuous spectacle which shakes off the story’s sanitised Disney associations and restores its creepy fairy-tale surrealism. And US indie stalwart Kelly Reichardt delivered a left-field gem in First Cow, a sweet-natured pastoral bromance set in early 19th century Oregon — probably the first Western with a bovine star.

But the break-out animals of the festival must be the family of absurdly cute pigs at the heart of Russian director Viktor Kossakovsky’s Gunda, a wordless monochome documentary about farm animals in Norway.

This porcine odyssey is a charming, meditative, quietly magical treat. Admittedly it is unlikely to rival Clinton or Depp at the box office, but stranger things have happened in Berlin. These pigs might fly.