As always, there’s a huge crush at the press centre at the Potsdamer Platz on Day 1, and at the Cinemax theatre right next to it. This is going to be the centre of my universe for the next few days, lining up for one film after another, all the way till late into the night, when your eyes are sawdust, and your head buzzing with all the sights and sounds of the Berlinale, the world’s largest public film festival.
How do you choose from just over 400 films in 10 days? The competition section, from where the winners will pick up the top prizes of the festival, the Golden and Silver Bears, is the one most of us, the visiting international press, gravitates towards, because these are the new, buzzy ones, from established and emerging masters, which have been hand-picked for our viewing pleasure.
I manage to scramble in to the press screening of the opening film just a few seats ahead of the theatre getting full. Lone Scherfig is a Berlin favourite, having wowed the audience here with her rom coms, beginning with the 2000 Italian For Beginners. This new film, The Kindness Of Strangers, is self-explanatory: a bunch of people who don’t know each other reach out a helping hand when it is most needed.
The film is set in the seedier patches of New York. The little apartments so close to the subway that you can almost reach out and touch the rails; the willing-everyone-to-cheer soup kitchens which dole out a warm meal and castaway clothes; support groups which talk about forgiveness; the tall glitzy buildings of Manhattan viewed as faraway fairy-tales by a runaway family of three, a young woman with her two sons trying to escape an abusive husband and suffocating home life.
Zoe Kazan as Clara, the girl on the run, is lovely, her slash of deep red lipstick used as a weapon against the darkness that surrounds her. We see her increasing desperation as she struggles to keep her boys fed and cleaned: from a homemaker, she turns into a stealer of designer shoes, and fancy finger-foods from hotel buffets.
From a promising beginning, the film soon spirals into contrivances and forced situations. Along comes a handsome ex-con, who finds himself running a run-down Russian hotel, helping out an ageing aristocrat with a fake accent. The bad cop husband shows up to snarl. A too-good-to-be-true nurse-cum-soup kitchen volunteer has a crisis of faith. A guy with an attitude problem finds a way out. And of course their lives, with all their heaving, plunging problems, criss-cross.
You are left with an eye-roll problem. But you can also see just why this film was chosen as the Berlinale opener: The Kindness Of Strangers speaks of loneliness and isolation, universal conditions. There are millions of Claras and their families fighting to keep up their spirits around the world. Finally, it takes a kind gesture from someone you didn’t know till then, to keep you from disintegrating.
The wonderful Billy Nighy, who plays the fake Russian noble, was most eloquent at the press conference.
“They say that prejudice doesn’t survive proximity. People get along famously. It is the politicians who separate us for self-advancement,” said the veteran actor who does well with salty characters, and has a nice caviar joke in this one.
The ‘desi contingent’ was out in full force for Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, in which Ranveer Singh plays a young man who uses rap as an instrument of upliftment. There’s a press embargo till the first public screening after-the-red-carpet on Saturday night, and apparently the shows are almost sold out.
Hang on, and we’ll tell you everything.