No Place for Cynicism

in 64th International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg

by Jelle Schot

Around the world, film festivals tend to be pretty bleak affairs. That is to say, the onscreen images often revolve around death, war and sickness, simply because most filmmakers are drawn to the tragic aspects of life. As a result, there is always a fascinating, somewhat confusing contrast between the dreary content of the films and the joyous nature of these events.

This year’s festival, however, offered a more sunny outlook on the human condition, with a surprising number of comedies — all combining the tragic with the funny — dominating the International Newcomer Competition. Optimism seems to be in the festival’s DNA; as the mayor of the city of Mannheim declared during last year’s ceremony, “You won’t find any cynical films here.”

The opening film Stubborn (Une Histoire Américaine), the second feature by French director Armel Hostiou, set the tone. A humorous depiction of a classic case of amour fou, this tragicomedy revolves around a chronically stubborn Parisian who travels to New York in a desperate attempt to win back his girlfriend. Strolling around Manhattan and Brooklyn, mumbling in broken French, he encounters the person who might well be the real love of his life: a Danish woman straight from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl factory. But his obstinacy prevents him from truly noticing her.

Equally tragic, and even more funny, were the misadventures of the title character in the Uruguayan comedy Clever, directed by first-timers Federico Borgia and Guillermo Madeiro. This is a delightfully witty film, in which the bald male protagonist, the operator of a karate studio, tries to hunt down the artist of a showy paint job on a car, hoping to convince the man to recreate the artwork for his pimped-out Chevette. He ends up in a small provincial town, where the locals don’t take kindly to strangers; they also seem to be addicted to red wine popsicles.

Utterly deadpan and often just plain weird, Clever impressed with the great humanity instilled in all of its characters. In the scenes between Clever and the artist, a Lou Ferrigno lookalike who still lives with his mother, there is a certain tragic beauty (and homoerotic tension) lurking beneath the surface.

Clever shares its humanist qualities with two other works in this year’s competition: Walking Distance (Distancias Cortas) and Jeremy (El Jeremías), coincidentally both from Mexico. The former, a lovely film about a gentle soul who is so obese that he can hardly leave his apartment, was awarded the prize of the Ecumenical Jury. And Jeremy, a more straightforward and nicely stylized comedy featuring an incredibly adorable and highly intelligent little boy, was unsurprisingly the winner of the Audience Award. Another Mexican film, the drama The Thin Yellow Line, was given the Grand Newcomer Award.  There were other films which marked a diversion from the usual bleakness of international art cinema. From Switzerland there was Rider Jack, a sweet and charming road movie about a 45-year-old unemployed dreamer and his demented father. Belgian comedy Paradise Trips shared a similar theme, depicting the troubled relationship between a conservative bus driver and his hippie son. And from Kazakhstan came Once in an Orphanage (Odnazhdiy v detskom dome), an absurdist fairytale about an escaped criminal who ends up in a tiny Kazakh community.

This is not to say that there was no real drama to be found in this year’s International Newcomer Competition, which consisted of a whopping 22 films (by contrast, last year’s competition only contained thirteen). There were stories about suicide (Bridgend), cancer (Home Care) and war crimes (Magallanes). The most heartbreaking of all was Simshar, a somewhat uneven but powerful account of the refugee crisis in Malta. But in the end, the 64th edition of Germany’s second oldest film festival left its audience for the most part with lifted spirits and feelings of compassion and warmth – indeed, it proved to be no place for for cynicism.

Edited by Lesley Chow