Film & Video
4 min

Berlinale wraps up

Queer films from around the world shine at 2014 festival

A scene from Brazilian filmmaker Daniel Ribeiro’s award-winning blind teen romance The Way He Looks (Hoje eu Quero Voltar Sozinho). Credit: Daniel Ribeiro

The 64th Berlin International Film Festival (aka the Berlinale) is now complete, having during its 10-day run presented a bold and exciting lineup of LGBT cinema that spanned a spectrum of continents, budgets, themes and identities — despite, frustratingly and unusually, a serious dearth of lesbian content this year.

Of the more than 20 feature-length queer films and six shorts that took part in the 2014 Berlinale, several were outstanding, including Daniel Ribeiro’s blind teen romance The Way He Looks (Hoje eu Quero Voltar Sozinho) from Brazil, and Stefan Haupt’s Swiss gay history flick The Circle (Der Kreis) — which took home the LGBT-focused Teddy Awards for best feature and best documentary. Both films also fared very well in the broader festival, with The Circle taking the Audience Award for Best Documentary in the entire Panorama section, and The Way He Looks nabbing second place with Panorama audiences in the fiction film category.

Further festival excellence came this year from Ira Sachs’s tender American drama Love Is Strange, starring Alfred Molina and John Lithgow as an older couple who, finally able to legally marry, are still forced to weather the unexpected effects of homophobia. Homophobia also featured prominently in another of the festival’s gems, Ádám Császi's Land of Storms (Viharsarok), a steamy but difficult tale of gay romance in rural Hungary.

The sole lesbian-themed entry at this year’s festival was the short Winter Morning (Vetrarmorgun), hailing from an unlikely corner: the Faroe Islands, the autonomous little Danish possession located mid-sea between Scotland and Iceland.

With high quality always a given at the Berlinale, the fest’s gay slate appropriately served no real stinkers this year. But minor disappointments did include Karim Aïnouz’s pretty and well-acted but script-hungry Praia do Futuro from Brazil, the only gay film in competition for the esteemed Golden Bear; and Zhou Hao’s well-intentioned but not-quite-ready-for-prime-time The Night (Ye) from China (after the film’s premiere screening, the director said he’d made it for $15 — and not as a statement about male prostitution in modern China, but simply because he wanted to star in a movie in which the main character changes outfits often).

Toronto’s own Bruce LaBruce took home a surprise Teddy jury award for his offbeat and genre-busting Pierrot Lunaire, inspired by his own Berlin musical from 2011, which was itself a reworking of a musical from a century earlier. Roy Dib’s Mondial 2010 from Lebanon, an unusual look at life in the Palestinian territories, took home the Teddy for best short. Special Teddy awards also went to directors Elfi Mikesch and Rosa von Praunheim, and Cambodian trans activist Sou Sotheavy, who received the David Kato Vision and Voice Award.

In a separate ceremony, Australia’s 52 Tuesdays, about a teenaged girl coming to terms with her mother’s gender transition, took home the Siegessäule reader award, given by Berlin’s monthly queer magazine.

Now here’s our own look at the standout queer films at this year’s Berlinale.

Hottest:  Land of Storms runs away with this one, with Hungarian hotties András Sütö and Ádám Varga as the main man-couple, and German actor Sebastian Urzendowsky as the third side of their stormy triangle. Praia do Futuro is another strong contender here, with popular Brazilian actor Wagner Moura (Elysium) and German stud Clemens Schick (Casino Royale) playing the lead lovers.

Sweetest:  With a near-perfect script and totally charming performances from all three leads (Ghilherme Lobo, Fabio Audi and Tess Amorim), everything about Brazil’s The Way He Looks just makes you want to hug it. America’s Love Is Strange, with Molina and Lithgow as an absolutely endearing longtime couple, is also oozing with “aww” factor. Ecuador’s Holiday (Feriado), about a teenaged city boy’s irresistible crush on a pueblo youth with whom he shares a name, is quite charming as well, thanks largely to a wonderfully understated performance by Juan Manuel Arregui.

Oddest:  This one’s a draw between two German films: Der Samurai, in which a young rural police officer must contend with a sword-wielding crossdressing wolflike predator, and the simultaneous awakening of his own urges; and Pierrot Lunaire, LaBruce’s discordant musical tale of a trans man who plots to steal a penis from a stripper so as to win back his girlfriend.

Most gorgeous:  The attention to detail and beauty in French director Jalil Lespert’s biopic Yves Saint Laurent is impeccable and often breathtaking, and fabulous lead Pierre Niney isn’t at all hard to look at, either.

Toughest to watch:  While both good films, Eduardo Roy, Jr’s Quick Change from the Philippines is loaded with close-up shots of trans women being injected with collagen (or worse), and Jayan Cherian’s Papilio Buddha, from India, features some very difficult torture scenes to reveal the plight of the country’s Dalit caste.

Most enlightening:  The Circle is both delightful and fascinating as it tells the story of Switzerland’s early gay movement, in particular one adorable couple who’ve now been together for more than 50 years. While not nearly as captivating, Italy’s Happy To Be Different (Felice chi è diverso) is no less filled with morsels from that country’s early gay history.

Most fun:  Bank robbery shouldn’t be fun, but as the real-life story of John Wojtowicz — the man who inspired Dog Day Afternoon by holding up a Brooklyn bank to fund his partner’s sex change operation — The Dog is a blast, thanks to its main character’s take-no-prisoners attitude toward everything in life.