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Berlin Film Festival 2024: Meanwhile on Earth, La Cocina, Another End

The best part about attending most major film festivals, apart from the films and the people, is visiting their theaters — local jewels that recall the magic inherent in the phrase “movie house.” This is my first Berlinale, and for this dispatch I managed to see each one of the selections in a different theater: For “Meanwhile on Earth,” I sat in the resplendent Zoo Palast, a spacious yet intimate venue highlighted by its scarlet palette and a gold trimmed curtain intimating the treasured screen that sits behind it. The Verti Music Hall served as the meeting place for “La Cocina,” the venue’s mix of stadium and floor seating allows it to play like a big room engineered for a crowd’s energy to rise to the high exposed ceiling. Once that film finished, I had forty minutes to trek to the Berlinale Palast (despite the heavy traffic, I made it in with 15 minutes to spare) to see “Another End.” The three-tiered Berlinale Palast, whose wide expanse has a low, gentle echo is the kind of room where you can feel the atmosphere shift against a film l, as what happened to the final selection of this dispatch. 

I Lost My Body,” the animated odyssey of a severed hand escaped from a laboratory, was so persistent and vivid, I knew I wanted to see whatever writer/director Jérémy Clapin had cooking next. So color me surprised that not only did he make a Sci-Fi space film, with a conceit that felt engineered specifically to me, but that I also didn’t fall for its eccentric and gnawing interest in grief. “Meanwhile on Earth” is a frustrating watch precisely because the elements are there, but they’ve been poorly configured, restricted from unleashing the freakishly bloody onslaught being teased. 

Often recalling “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” in its early going “Meanwhile on Earth” nearly has you in its grasp: Aspiring graphic novelist Elsa (Megan Northman) works as a caregiver in a nursing home run by her mother. The career isn’t necessarily what Elsa wants but three years ago her astronaut brother Franck (Sam Louwych) embarked on a deep space mission he never returned from. The gig at the nursing home and the look book she sketches people and memories in, animated components that editor Jean Christopher Bouzy seamlessly takes us in and out of, are Elsa’s ways of coping with loss. When a mysterious, gooey seed, however, grants her telepathic communication with the extraterrestrials holding her brother hostage — she suddenly has an opportunity to save him: She must find five people within three days as hosts for these aliens, and in return, they will return her brother to earth.

While these beings aren’t benevolent, it’s not clear they’re dangerous either. Normally, I’m not one for easy answers. I think most great world building happens when you know the line between what to hold back and what to give to an audience, but “Meanwhile on Earth” just doesn’t make a whole lotta sense. This extraterrestrial force is underwritten especially when it comes to explaining why they need Elsa as an intermediary (the reason they give is simply nonsensical). Clapin’s script struggles to fully pull forward the tension of having to choose random individuals to sacrifice as a way to heal a festering heartache. He partially steers his film’s intended emotions toward camp. And yet, I would have much preferred the film if it totally embraced its camp sensibilities: let’s just say there’s a scene involving a chainsaw used as a low blow against a predator that gives a sense of where this Sci-Fi character study could have gone. Instead, Clapin’s film remains disappointingly earthbound.

La Cocina,” Mexican writer/director Alonzo Ruizpalacios’ searing black and white slice of nightmare, is a monumental work of righteous anger. Set in the narrow, combustible confines of a kitchen belonging to a New York City tourist trap of a restaurant, in the story of a flammable Mexican cook named Pedro (Raúl Briones), the film follows in the footsteps walked by Fritz Lang and Charlie Chaplin, taking aim at the grinding, chewing machinery of not only the American dream but the remnant of the failed egalitarian promise of industrial commerce. 

Before we even see Pedro on screen, he is already sort of a legend: When Estela (Anna Diaz), a childhood acquaintance, arrives from Mexico looking for a job, supposedly by Pedro’s request, we’re already hearing a story about him getting into a fight with a white cook the previous night. When Pedro does stroll in he’s loud, funny, cocky, and always on the brink of a meltdown. There’s a lot weighing on Pedro’s angular, sunken face. Similar to the kitchen’s many cooks, he is undocumented. His girlfriend Julia (Rooney Mara), a waitress at The Grill, is pregnant and thinking about getting an abortion. 

Ruizpalacios and his DP Juan Pablo Ramírez and editor Yibrán Asuad are a patient trio, composing elegant, classical frames — taking advantage of these emotive performers via oblique closeups — whose painterly lighting tells us much about the psychological twists and strains warping each character. Long pans and tight tracks, time-lapsed blurs and perceptively deep depths of field allow for further candor while giving a showcase to the kitchen’s intricate choreography. In short, Ruizpalacios takes joy in the practice of filmmaking. And it’s a wonder to see, feel, and take in. 

Much could be said of how adventurous Mara is here and how exacting every member of this deep ensemble assumes their part — but it’s Carmona, playing a man in clear agony, who’s every word is delivered with cataclysmic intent that always draws our interest. When he finally blows, unleashing a cathartic primal scream that even stops the inventive ticking score, it is with the force of broken promises, continued duress, forced assimilation, and the toll of the unrelenting clock that leaves an audible gasp for a performance that opens a searing window into the lives of the exploited, completing this singular masterwork. 

Before it ever really gets going, “Another End,” the sleepy high concept Sci-Fi, has already overstayed its welcome. That’s a pity; on paper director Piero Messina has an intriguing concept to work with. A forlorn recently widowed Sal (Gael García Bernal) spends his days searching for solace from his sister Ebe (Bérénice Bejo) following the death of his wife Zoe in a horrific car crash. Ebe is so worried about her brother she recommends he take advantage of the family discount, so to speak: She heads the recruitment of hosts, everyday people who offer their bodies to her company Another End so that the memories of the deceased can be downloaded into them. While the technology is a miracle, it does have a few drawbacks: It's not a permanent change; host and bereaved agree on a set timeline, allowing the latter the opportunity to say goodbye.

At first, Sal is hesitant. After all, physically, this person is a stranger. But when the new Zoe (Renate Reinsve) appears, he falls for her to the point of begging Ebe for more time. It isn’t worth boring you with any further plot details: Everything else — from the film’s interest in the ambiguity of identity and the extremes Sal’s love will take him — are pretty predictable until the narrative’s nauseating twist.

While watching “Another End” I couldn’t help but be reminded of the melodrama “Wander Darkly,” a far more warm, heartfelt interrogation of death. For a film about the pain of mourning, this one’s flat lighting and austere production design is cold and distant to the point of imperceptibility. Reinsve makes a game attempt playing two different characters, while Bernal tries his best to fulfill the necessary physical rigidity called for by the script with the requisite emotions necessary for the character — but they’re both fighting a losing battle. 

It’s fitting then that “Another End” would have a misjudged false end, causing some in the Berlinale Palast to burst into laughter and audible groans. I for one was happy to bid this film adieu when the credits mercifully began to roll.

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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