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Berlin Film Festival 2024: Dahomey, My Favorite Cake, A Traveler's Needs

If I have another dispatch with three films of this quality, then Berlin will have been an incredible success. Each selection here is an intimate, at moments, meditative interrogation of memory and the brutal passage of time composed through a historic, personable, and hilarious lens. They’re also from two dependable auteurs and two newer filmmakers, each relying on a unique spontaneity for their respective subject.  

Back in December 2021, the Republic of Benin, formerly Dahomey, finally convinced France to repatriate 26 artifacts looted by French colonizers over a hundred years ago from Paris’ Musée du Quai de Branly in Paris back to Benim. “Dahomey,” Mati Diop’s first feature since “Atlantics,” is an invigorating, economically composed yet no less dense documentary tracking their return. The inventive Diop finds a distinct approach to the seemingly straightforward topic, translating the diverse emotions felt by a mostly jubilant country and the artifacts themselves. 

The latter consideration is a lens that feels particular to Diop’s desire to give voice to the most disaffected. In this case, it’s item #26 of the artifacts, a King Ghezo statue, who speaks in a low distorted voice about the scarring that occurred when he was ripped away from home. He mostly speaks when the screen is blank and black, a visualization that suggests a lucid accounting of the historical pains, fears, and memories of a diaspora that was stripped of name and country. 

Once in Benin, Diop nimbly switches between the perspective of item 26 and the varied responses of the Beniness: in the streets there are vibrant, joyful parades and a sense of reverence, as though a long, lost hero were returning after victory. Once the artifacts are unpacked, then comes a recording of their state. Over the decades parts of them have become damaged or missing, some, with a hint of cruel irony, are cracked at their foundations. Dignitaries come to see the pieces once they’re in place, and so does the public—leading to debate about the return of the artifacts by students at a local university. This sounding board of the young speaking about the political, cultural and historical ramifications of the artifacts — with some decrying that only 26 of the over 7000 looted pieces have been returned — often recalls the fervent debate seen in “The Urban Crisis and the New Militants” series, which captured the radical Black politics happening in Chicago during the late 1960s. 

Like that film, what is displayed in “Dahomey” is a country, a people, in fact, who are deciding the world they want to build and what tools they want to build with. Diop finds these scenes just as poetically powerful as the sights of the many who come, with eyes transfixed in awe, to take in the exhibits. “Dahomey” casts a similar spell, soundtracked by a ruminative dreamlike score, it fills and nourishes the viewer with urgent desires, providing space for the light that constitutes the souls of Black folk to shine brighter through repair. Diop is back, and she is just as searing and imperative as ever. 

The widowed retired nurse, 70-year old Mahin (Lily Farhadpour), is a lonely woman who spends her days pining for the freedom of a bygone era before the Iranian Revolution. She is looking for romance. But at her age, hampered by a failing knee, commiserating with her friends about their shared ailments while she lives in Tehran, far from her family, where morality police are pulling women over for improperly wearing their hijab or walking too close to a man—how can she find love? 

Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha’s bittersweet two-hander “My Favorite Cake” takes place mostly over a single night. While visiting a pensioners’ restaurant, Mahin overhears a group of older men talking amongst themselves, hoping to protest their country’s broken social order (their struggle for their pensions mirrors the limited avenues for self expression for women). One of the men, Esmail (Esmail Mehrabi), a lonely elderly war veteran now working as a taxi driver, catches her eye to the point of personally requesting his boss that he drive her home. Mahin is tired of not going out dancing, spending nights in solitude watching soap operas until dawn: She wants to live again, and the gentle Esmail is equally game — openly expressing his attraction to a blushing Mahin. The night they spend together is filled with ecstatic drinking, loud reveries, and quiet affection. 

In some ways the bubbly Mahid reminded me of the character Etero, the sexually freed woman in “Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry.” Each woman is seeking a kind of autumnal relationship, defying their oppressive surroundings before it's too late. Similar to that film, “My Favorite Cake” takes a poignant turn, one that plays with a very grim reality. While you feel like the gender politics of the film could have a sharper bite, Farhadpour and Mehrabi are such a cozy pair in Moghaddam and Sanaeeha’s bleak film — whose ending may play as far too cruel to some — it still shines as an aching elegy for what once was good in the world, may never be again. 

I’ll admit it: Over the last six years or so, I’ve been lukewarm on Isabelle Huppert. It’s not because she isn't a fantastic actress, but some directors persistently overwork her unique screen presence into overstylized settings, sometimes rendering her a caricature. I think Huppert is aware of that; so it’s been interesting at the Berlinale seeing her in two low-key roles like “The New Friends” and “A Traveler’s Needs,” films whose eccentricities are more organically staged. It’s the latter, writer/director Hong Sang-soo’s gleefully hilarious and unmistakably mysterious “A Traveler's Needs,” the filmmaker and actress’ third collaboration, that is clearly the best of the two. 

In “A Traveler’s Needs,’ Huppert plays Iris: A peculiar French woman without any definable origin. One day she appeared on a bench in South Korea badly playing a recorder, and despite having no formal training, within a couple of months she has become a French language teacher to a few Koreans. Iris never brings a textbook. Instead, she asks pupils personal questions, whose responses she then jots down in French on notecards for them to practice. She believes if they are emotionally invested in a phrase, it’ll allow the language to become one of feeling rather than rote memorization. The lessons become recurring scenarios. The first with a young pianist is very earnest. But with each scenario, as Iris’ actions repeat, her pedagogy, her way of bewitching her students, and her addiction to makgeolli become memorably absurd. 

The comic timing is nestled in a surprising mystery that is less invested in the filmmaker’s interest in memory but more in how the inexpressive feeling art gives expresses much about us, prompting questions of comparative meaning—how the power of words shift from language to language—and our common relationship and responses to music and poetry. Hong’s regulars like Lee Hye Yeong, Kwon Hae-hyo, Cho Yunhee, and Ha Seong-guk have integral roles as pupils. But it’s Huppert who is especially sensational, blending a deft sense of innocence with a hint of mischievousness for a character that makes you wish the actress was your best friend.

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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