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At the Berlin Film Festival, Reconsidering the Power of Doubt

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Doubt gets a bad rap. Doubt is fussy and forgetful, whereas certainty strides around, all action and achievement. As a film critic, swift, declarative certainty is a quality I’ve learned to aspire to. And at times, to fake.

But this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, which runs through Sunday, has been buffeted outside and in by political turbulence and organizational shake-ups. And so perhaps because the event itself is experiencing such uncertain times, the films made me reconsider — actually, doubt — my dismissive stance on doubt.

Doubt is etched on Cillian Murphy’s hollow, striking features in Tim Mielants’s grave and moving “Small Things Like These,” which opened the festival last week. Based on a novella by Claire Keegan — whose “The Quiet Girl” was adapted into an Oscar-nominated feature in 2022 — the film is set in 1985 in the town of New Ross, Ireland, which is home to one of the Magdalene laundries, the infamously abusive church-run institutions to which pregnant, unwed women and girls were sent in shame to have their babies, who were then taken from them. In this case, the chief perpetrator of the abuse is Sister Mary (a frostbitten Emily Watson), who has clearly never had a doubt in her life. But the movie is really about Murphy’s quietly anguished coal deliveryman, Bill, and his deepening crisis of conscience.

It takes considerable bravery for Bill to go against the unspoken rules of a community conspiring in silence. But as a man and a family patriarch, it is an avenue available to him. In Maryam Moghadam and Behtash Sanaeeha’s sweet and funny “My Favourite Cake,” the options are different for the Tehran-based widow Mahin (Lily Farhadpour), even if her spirit, too, is chafing against an oppressive religious social order. Her instantaneous love connection with a similarly lonely taxi driver challenges Iranian conventions in this glowingly performed rom-com that turns unnecessarily dark late on, when Mahin is punished for the act of gentle rebellion that the movie otherwise celebrates.

For a more satisfying, if low-key, depiction of lonely social outcasts finding a spark of solace in each other, there is the Japanese director Sho Miyake’s lovely “All The Long Nights.” Mone Kamishiraishi plays Misa, whose debilitating, personality-altering PMS makes adhering to Japan’s rigid codes of politeness mortifyingly difficult. But the friendship she strikes up with a co-worker who is plagued with panic attacks becomes a source of mutual support: It will likely be one of the most touching platonic relationships of the moviegoing year.

Fellow feeling is nowhere to be found for the newly married Agnes (a riveting Anja Plaschg) in the staggeringly bleak “The Devil’s Bath,” which is set in rural Austria in 1750 and based on historical records of a horrifying phenomenon in which hundreds of people committed devastating, execution-worthy crimes to get around the church’s injunction against suicide. It is another excoriating vision of religious hypocrisy, especially as it pertains to the control and oppression of women — yet however despairing all the piety and murder, prayer and madness might be, the exquisite filmmaking, from the “Goodnight Mommy” co-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, casts an unshakably hypnotic spell.

Much of that power derives from Martin Gschlacht’s beautiful, earthy photography. Shots of mud oozing with blood and swollen fish dying slowly in tubs of filmy lake water evoke fundamental questions about our interactions with the natural world. This rural fishing community may be governed by God, but its days are spent in harsh communion with the natural world.

This was a theme of several other Berlin standouts, such as Anna Cornudella Castro’s “The Human Hibernation.” In this feature, people, like many other creatures, sleep though the winter months, a fact that has shifted our place down the ecological pecking order. There is a very loose plot, but this enigmatic speculative drama really comes alive in its uncanny close-ups of snails and snakes, bright-eyed chickens and vaguely malevolent cows.

As a low-budget art house experiment, “The Human Hibernation” puts to shame many of the festival’s higher profile sci-fi offerings, such as Piero Messina’s lackluster “Another End” and the sluggish Adam Sandler vehicle “Spaceman,” in which Sandler’s Czech cosmonaut would rather talk through his marital issues with a sympathetic alien arachnid 500 million miles from Earth than with his radiantly pregnant wife (Carey Mulligan). To appropriate the joke meme, it’s a tale of how men will literally go to Jupiter before they’ll go to therapy.

Even when it comes to unusual vessels for interspecies contact, Sandler’s sad sack starman runs a distant second to the “cocaine hippo” whose afterlife musings punctuate the Dominican filmmaker Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias’s “Pepe.” This frenetic, frustratingly incoherent, but undeniably ambitious, film is based on the bizarre true story of a hippopotamus that escaped from the drug baron Pablo Escobar’s former estate before being hunted down by the Colombian authorities.

A dead hippo suddenly granted a rather pretentious consciousness should make for any festival’s oddest nonhuman narrator. But move over, Pepe, because here comes the looted statue of King Gezo that was recently returned by France to Benin, whose echoey, booming voice delivers a contemptuous commentary in Mati Diop’s competition highlight “Dahomey.” Diop’s documentary is some kind of miracle, packing an extraordinary amount of information, inquiry and wild, persuasive imagination into a slim, 68-minute runtime.

Alongside “Dahomey,’ many of the films I responded to most this edition were documentaries, including Oksana Karpovych’s “Intercepted,” which features chilling real-life phone conversations between Russian soldiers in Ukraine and their family members back home, and Victor Kossakovsky’s “Architecton” which questions the very solidity of the structures we occupy while incorporating spectacular slow-motion sequences of quarry explosions set to gut-rumbling, tectonic music.

Most playfully, there’s Travis Wilkerson’s magpie-minded “Through the Graves the Wind is Blowing” an eye-catching essay on how the conflicted World War II history of Yugoslavia and the recent resurgence of the far right in Croatia are written across the monuments, tourist traps and disused malls of the modern-day city of Split.

All these documentaries cast doubt on deeply held shibboleths, but so did my favorite fiction film of the festival, Alonso Ruizpalacios’ “La Cocina.” A live-wire Raúl Briones plays Pedro, a cook in a busy Times Square restaurant who, over the course of one surreal, delirious, destructive day, is accused of stealing, threatened with firing, gets into several fights, tells and hears a dozen stories and tries to persuade his waitress paramour (Rooney Mara) not get an abortion. Of all the sacred cows tipped by the films in Berlin, none are more sacred than the American dream, and there are few films that have ever been as dazzlingly dubious about that notion as “La Cocina.”

Follow the fissures that doubt creates into the dark heart of an issue, or an institution, or a nation, and you might just be able to light it up from the inside. In the 12 years that I’ve been attending, the Berlin Film Festival has had stellar editions and dull ones, but it has rarely felt this embattled and unstable, or unsure of itself and what the future holds. Which makes it particularly gratifying that many of this transitionary year’s titles remind us that, like for Cillian Murphy’s Bill hefting sacks of coal in the pitch black small hours of an Irish midwinter morning, it’s always darkest — and you are always most doubtful — just before the dawn.

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