Italy’s ‘Caesar Must Die’ takes top honors at Berlinale

As I wrote in my most recent Berlin Film Festival dispatch — and will explain further tomorrow, when I review my favorites of the festival — this year’s Competition turned out far stronger than it looked on paper, with a handful of rangy, robust formally exciting films that would have passed muster even in a more high-stakes Cannes lineup.

“Caesar Must Die,” a comeback effort of sorts from veteran Italian auteurs Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, was not, for my money, one of those films. A gimmicky melange of re-enacted documentary and heightened performance piece that feels padded even at 76 minutes, it follows the rehearsal and staging of an amateur production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in Rome’s rough Rebibbia prison.

With an array of real-life convicts, most of them Mafia-related, playing themselves, the film rather unsubtly underlines the liberating powers of culture — at one point, by having one of the men helpfully say that he feels liberated by culture. (Another participant, Salvatore Striano, was paroled in 2006 and has since cultivated a career as an actor, popping up in “Gomorrah” a few years back.) The film premiered early in the fest and had its admirers, but swiftly dropped out of the critical conversation — and, indeed, my memory. 

Clearly, however, it stuck more with Mike Leigh’s jury. In a result that has no doubt confounded a lot of bookies, “Caesar Must Die” beat the more hotly fancied likes of “Barbara,” “War Witch” and “Tabu” to win the Golden Bear — a coup that will no doubt boost the Italian curio’s iffy international distribution prospects a little, but I think it’s safe to say we haven’t another “A Separation” on our hands here.

The win comes 35 years after the Tavianis won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for their severe Sardinian shepherd drama “Padre Padrone.” Once relatively revered names on the world cinema circuit — their 1982 film “Night of the Shooting Stars” was an even bigger crossover success, winning Best Picture from the Boston and National Society of Film Critics — their following has since faded somewhat, though I imagine Leigh remembers their heyday.

It’s interesting, meanwhile, that Berlin, Venice and Cannes have all handed their top laurels to veteran filmmakers in the past year (Aleksandr Sokurov and Terrence Malick complete the trio). Clearly, Academy voters aren’t the only ones turning the clock back. Does this mean we’re due another shock-of-the-new festival champ — à la “Pulp Fiction” or “sex, lies and videotape” — this year?

The jury chose a better film for the runner-up prize: Hungarian director Benedek Fliegauf’s “Just the Wind,” a harrowing fact-based portrait of the last day in the lives of a gypsy family murdered by nationalist extremists. Fliegauf’s last film, the Eva Green-starring fantasy “Womb,” was a technically astonishing oddity: here, the same level of craft is applied to far more substantial material, even if the final result is coldly unilluminating.

My three favorites of the festival were all handed a prize of some variety, most notably Christian Petzold’s Best Director gong for “Barbara,” a rivetingly deliberate study of cross-border tensions and yearnings in late-1970s East Germany, anchored by brilliant performance from Nina Hoss. (Following my 2011 Top 20 entry “Sleeping Sickness,” it’s the second year in a row a local director has taken the honor.)

Miguel Gomes’s “Tabu” and Ursula Meier’s “Sister” were damned with fainter praise. The former, an exquisitely enigmatic black-and-white marriage of post-colonial politics and swoonsome silent-movie romance, was arguably the critical favorite of the festival, and duly won the FIPRESCI critics’ award, but had to settle for the lesser Alfred Bauer Prize from the jury — supposedly for works “of particular innovation,” it’s designed for weighty artistic accomplishments that juries nonetheless don’t quite know how to handle. Still, it’s a more established honor than the vague “Special Award” handed to Meier’s lovely character study of an unmoored kid thieving for a living at a moneyed Swiss ski resort.

The invention of an extra award suggests to me that Leigh’s jury — an unusually distinguished one, including Jake Gyllenhaal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Francois Ozon, Asghar Farhadi and Anton Corbijn — was divided in their support of several Competition films. Further supporting that notion is the fact that only one film took more than one prize — unlike last year, when “A Separation” took the Golden Bear and both acting prizes. That film, incidentally, is the well-regarded Danish costume drama “A Royal Affair,” which took Best Screenplay and Best Actor for Mikkel Følsgaard. I regretfully missed it, but will catch up with it in London next month.  

Finally, the one award I predicted correctly was the Best Actress prize for 15 year-old Congolese newcomer Rachel Mwanza in “War Witch,” a vivid, gripping evocation of the horrors endured by a female child soldier in Africa that was the last film screened in Competition and knocked many critics sideways. Mwanza’s award was easily seen coming — it’s the kind of stunt festival juries routinely like to pull, but the performance merits the attention. In a strong festival for actresses, the aforementioned Nina Hoss and Birgit Minichmayr (superb as a traumatised hit-and-run driver in uneven German entry “Mercy”) might have given Mwanza more of a run for her money if both women hadn’t recent won this very award.

Anyway, more tomorrow. For now here’s the (not quite full, but I had to stop somewhere) list of winners:  

Golden Bear (Best Film): “Caesar Must Die,” Paolo and Vittorio Taviani

Jury Grand Prix: “Just the Wind,” Benedek Fliegauf

Best Director: Christian Petzold, “Barbara”

Best Actor: Mikkel Følsgaard, “A Royal Affair”

Best Actress: Rachel Mwanza, “War Witch”

Best Screenplay: Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, “A Royal Affair”

Outstanding Artistic Contribution: Lutz Reitemeier (cinematography), “White Deer Plain”

Alfred Bauer Prize for a work of particular innovation: “Tabu,” Miguel Gomes

Special Award (Silver Bear): “Sister,” Ursula Meier

Other jury prizes:

FIPRESCI Prize (Competition): “Tabu,” Miguel Gomes

FIPRESCI Prize (Panorama): “Atomic Age,” Helena Klotz

FIPRESCI Prize (Forum): “Hemel,” Sacha Polak

Teddy Award (Queer Cinema): “Keep the Lights On,” Ira Sachs

Best First Feature: “Kauwboy,” Boudewijn Koole

Special Mention (First Feature): “Beyond the Hill,” Emin Alper

Ecumenical Jury Prize (Competition): “Caesar Must Die,” Paolo and Vittorio Taviani

Ecumenical Jury Special Mention (Competition): “War Witch,” Kim Nguyen

Ecumenical Jury Prize (Panorama): “The Wall,” Julian Roman Polsler

Ecumenical Jury Special Mention (Panorama): “The Parade,” Srdjan Dragojevic

Ecumenical Jury Prize (Forum): “The Delay,” Rodrigo Pla

Crystal Bear (Generation Kplus): “Arcadia,” Olivia Silver

Crystal Bear (Generation 14plus): “Night of Silence,” Reis Celik

Golden Bear (Short Film): “Rafa,” Joao Salaviza

Prize of the Guild of German Art House Cinemas (Competition): “Coming Home,” Frederic Videau

Panorama Audience Award: “The Parade,” Srdjan Dragojevic

Panorama Audience Award (Documentary): “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present,” Matthew Akers

Berliner Morgenpost Jury Award (Competition): “Barbara,” Christian Petzold

Taggespiegel Jury Award (Forum): “The Delay,” Rodrigo Pla

Amnesty International Award: “Just the Wind,” Benedk Fliegauf

Honorary Golden Bear: Meryl Streep   

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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