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Berlin Film Festival 2024: Small Things Like These, Crossing, Cuckoo

It’s early, but the Berlinale has already granted three enriching films of distinctly different backgrounds. In fact, usually for these dispatches, I try to pair films of similar genres. In this instance, I think having these works together clues you into the variety on display at this year’s festival. 

Small Things Like These,” an intimate character study, rich in texture and set in Ireland, is big on the important things. Bill Furlong (Cillian Murphy) is a local coal distributor, and with his wife is a father to five girls. In the days leading up to Christmas 1985, he sees a ghastly sight while delivering coal to a convent: A young woman, kicking and screaming, is dragged by her mother and a few nuns into the church. While the film, adapted from Claire Keegan’s same-titled novella doesn’t outright state it, between the politics of the era and the Catholic mores that rule over the land, it doesn’t don’t take long to guess that she is an unwed mother. The image haunts Bill, forcing him to confront his own difficult childhood memories and the religious bedrock of this tight knit community. 

Tim Mielants’ film is a haunting and meditative work, whose solemn rhythms mark a tantalizing first hour. Through effortless intercutting, we flashback to a young Bill living with his single mother on the farm of her employer and then come back forward to the present slumped shoulder manual laborer. The director and his DP Frank van den Eeden’s opaque compositions — we see Bill through foggy car windows and enclosed distantly in door frames — tell us much about him: his quietness, his solitude and his singular morality. Though everyone knows the crimes happening at the convent, no one dares to rebel against the powerful sisters. Even when Bill tells his wife (Eileen Walsh), she pleads with him to let it lie. But Bill can’t, especially when he meets Sarah, one of the unwed mothers, freezing in a coal shed just outside of the church. 

It’s a promising premise that loses some steam in the final half hour. This is a film that could stand to be ten minutes longer. Because unlike “God’s Creatures,” a contemporary Irish story similarly concerned with the misogyny of the church, the sisters here, especially Mother Schwester (Emily Watson), are only one note malevolent figures. Still, the dynamics of the town, told through a keen visual language, provide sharp context and necessary depth. Having Murphy helps too; here, he’s a kind of George Bailey figure whose generosity brings the spokes of this web together. Murphy knows the tiniest decision can change a scene; each deep breath he takes forms the bedrock of the film. Murphy sells the final grace note with boyhood wonder, killing the audience watching the impeccable “Small Things Like These” with kindness. 

When we first glimpse Ms. Lia (Mzia Arabuli), a curt, retired history teacher at the heart of Levan Akin’s affecting “Crossing,” she’s striding grimly down the shoreline. She is heading toward a shack where one of her former students lives, in search of her transgender niece Tekla, who she hasn’t seen since the girl’s transphobic parents disowned her. While her pupil doesn’t have much information to offer, his ne’er-do-well brother Achi (Lucas Kankava), harboring dreams of leaving their tiny Georgian town for the big city, claims to have Tekla’s forwarding address leading to Istanbul, Turkey. He will help Ms. Lia if she’ll bring him with. Their unlikely partnership, born out of deep loneliness, gives “Crossing,” an aching story of regret, its steady, unassuming heartbeat. 

While Ms. Lia and Achi’s tall task forms half the story — how likely is it to find Ms. Lia’s niece in a metropolitan area with only an outdated address in hand? — an equally undaunted Evrim (Deniz Dumanli) forms the rewarding second half. A former trans sex worker turned legal volunteer, Evrim helps during the day with local cases, such as an orphaned child peddler needing to be bailed out of jail, and at night enjoys the social scene among her queer community. Though Evrim’s boyfriend is persistently afraid to be seen with her, she isn’t broken by the erasure: She simply hooks up with a hotter guy. 

Much of Levan’s acutely composed follow up to “And Then We Danced,” eloquently cycles through the disparate trio, revealing how each feels unacceptable to society. Kankava plays this mope with a hangdog mien obscuring a heart of gold well; Arabuli is a tightly locked levee of emotion; light seems to bend around the ebullient Dumanli. These three nuanced performances, along with indelible images of Turkey’s trans community, command the tenor of a film pitched around Tekla, a missing person we barely see. Though the final five minutes of “Crossing” is overwritten, nearly spoiling the visual language’s quiet work, the powerfully empathetic work done previously still manages to leap from the screen. 

Tillman Singer’s gory, high-concept horror “Cuckoo” isn’t based around much, but the light details — such as the secluded mountain setting housing a resort and hospital owned by the creepy, crawly German Mr. König (an exceptional Dan Stevens) — are enough to render the film unsettling, confounding, and surprising. 

Seventeen-year-old Gretchen (Hunter Schafer) arrives to a retreat with her father Luis (Marton Csókás), stepmother Beth (Jessica Henwick) and her mute 7-year-old stepsister Alma (Mila Lieu), burdened by grief. She recently lost her mother and copes by calling to their former answering machine, the only place she can still her voice. Though Gretchen did come along for the ride, she doesn’t plan on staying long. She has some cash saved up that she hopes will be enough to transit back home to America. Until then, she works as a receptionist at Mr. König’s hotel (a modest ode to “The Shining”) while Beth and Luis design a new resort for him. It doesn’t take long before strange happenings arise. Amid the quiet rolling hills, a scream echoes that forces whoever hears it to be stuck in a time loop. These incidents cause Alma to have seizures. Also, more than one woman is seen shuffling around, uncontrollably vomiting. No wonder Mr. König doesn’t want Gretchen going out alone at night. His warning gains credence when a mysterious shrieking woman begins stalking Gretchen, causing a random detective to take interest. 

While the symbolism in “Cuckoo” is quite obvious — similar to Hannah Bergholm’s “Hatching” it takes aim at the processing of grief, female voices, and reproductive rights — Singer, smartly, never takes himself too seriously, allowing these themes to organically manifest through evocative psychosexual lighting, unnerving compositions, and a playful lens. Schafer is exceptional as this corroded wound, a girl barely holding herself together as she balances telling moments of silence and loud instances of hostility. But it’s Stevens, who’s often strongest when he turns weird, who is unforgettable, one-upping Andre 3000 as cinema’s premiere flute player. Every choice Stevens makes as Mr. König doubles as a lampoon and a threat, as equally hilarious and sadistic. 

Between its inventive world building and a final invigorating freak out, the film’s few plot holes are papered over for a deafening ring worth repeating. 

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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