Two Daring Films: "El Custodio" and "Longing" By Diego Lerer

in 56th Berlinale

by Diego Lerer

In 2001, the Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel won the Alfred Bauer Award at Berlinale with her first film, The Swamp (La Ciénaga). Five years later, Rodrigo Moreno won the same prize for El Custodio, also his debut. Although formed in different cinema schools, Martel and Moreno are part of the generation that is known as the historias breves group (with Daniel Burman, Sandra Gugliotta, Adrian Caetano and Ulises Rosell). Moreno’s film, a collection of shorts, was released in 1995 and showed for the first time to the Argentine audiences the talents that were emerging from film universities.

The Alfred Bauer Award is given to innovative and daring films, which break, bend or twist the traditional rules of filmmaking. Five years after Martel’s winning film, it seems like the rules to bend are still the same (or even more strict), and any movie that dares to go slightly off-course is a sure candidate to win this award. The same could be said about Longing (Sehnsucht), the German film by Valeska Grisebach. Yet, this contemplative and tender movie was completely overlooked by the official jury.

Does this mean El Custodio and Longing are two radical avant-garde films? Or that the Berlinale competition and its main jury choices are very traditional and conservative, focusing on social and political content rather than on aesthetics or filmic value? Considering the main awards at the 2006 edition, we may hold the latter as true.

El Custodio.El Custodio tells the story of the bodyguard Ruben, a man who dedicates most of his time to protect the Argentine minister of planning. Outside his job, his life is also opaque and boring. His family and his social connections are minimal and sterile. Moreno’s film is organized as a series of long shots and carefully framed compositions. Ruben follows the minister during his daily routine, always at a distance. He seems to look at the world as something that happens ten, twelve feet away from him. He randomly overhears conversations among the minister and his staff, but they don’t acknowledge his presence and he doesn’t seem to care anyway. He is the man who’s not there.

Moreno has repeatedly stated that he had the idea for El Custodio already in the form of a film. It was never “a story to be told”, and it could never be transformed into literature. The movie is a triumph of mise-en-scene. Each shot has a reason to exist since Ruben’s point-of-view is always respected, and the images and sounds we perceive reveal more about his inner life than any conversation or explanation. El Custodio is a film of sounds, not dialogues. Of ceremonies half-understood, regulations and procedures; a film about a life spent.

Is El Custodio innovative? We may say it is, as much as Kitano’s Scenes from a Sea may be innovative, or Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn. However, in some other festivals, a film like this might win one of the main awards (innovative films by the Dardennes and Bruno Dumont won big prizes in Cannes) or it may as well be completely forgotten.

The great thing about Moreno’s Alfred Bauer Award is that the so-called Argentine new wave is still able to produce films that are thought to be provoking, different and challenging. The bad thing about it is that the world of film doesn’t seem to move an inch from a standardized and conventional form, a way of thinking that links big themes, great acting and traditional narrative strategies together in order to consider what makes a great film.

Different in many aspects to the Argentine movie, the German Longing also revels in the ordinariness of daily life, the simple things what some people call the boring aspects of life. Yet this film, as El Custodio, also tries to understand cinema and use it not only as a medium to communicate a story but as a way of looking at the world. Each shot — longer than the standard — has the length it needs to portray the way people of a small village in Germany go through their lives.

Markus works in the metal business and he’s also a volunteer fireman. He’s married to his childhood sweetheart, Ella. They seem to live a very happy but unexceptional life together. One night, when he goes to a training session in a small town nearby with his colleagues from the fire department, he drinks a little bit too much and ends up in bed with a local waitress, Rose. From then on, the film will follow Markus as he tries to understand what is happening to him, since he feels he wants to continue this new relationship without abandoning or even hurting his wife.

Longing is not a thriller and Grisebach does not try to exploit the situation for easy tension, nerve-wracking encounters or even big emotional pay-offs. Her style is observational, quiet, generous. The movie shows a filmmaker with a huge capacity to understand human emotions and the way the rational and irrational forces can go together within a single person.

As a filmmaker, Grisebach has an eye for capturing small moments which are usually discarded by the more traditional filmmakers. Family gatherings, long scenes of people dancing (a memorable one includes, strangely, the very corny ballad “Feel” by Robbie Williams, to great effect) and even casual accidents belong to the movie as much or even more than the confrontations or predictable plot points.

Is Longing innovative? We may say it is, as much as Eric Rohmer was innovative forty years ago, or the subtlest of the new trend of Asian dramas might be. However, in the world of festivals, where the films of Michelangelo Antonioni ceased to be radical almost five decades ago, somehow movies like these are still considered to be outsiders, different and daring.

They shouldn’t be. More than a hundred years after cinema was invented and decades after Ozu, Rossellini, Bresson, Antonioni, Bergman, Godard, Rohmer, Cassavetes and many, many others, to think movies like these are daring is something I still find hard to understand. They are exactly what movies should be in the 21st century.