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Berlinale 2023 Preview: From Sean Penn to Donna Summer

Berlinale is back, and it seems primed to retake its position as the largest public film festival in the world.

The Berlin film festival, founded in 1951, has grown over the last seven decades into a massive event showcasing hundreds of films from around the globe. The prestigious Golden Bear awarded to the winner of the competition slate is the central focus for many, an award directly rivalling the Golden Lion and Palme d’Or from the other members of the core European fest trinity, Venice and Cannes. After two years of a scaled-back event due to COVID restrictions, the 2023 iteration promises to be a return to the pre-pandemic scale of in-person activities.

While the festival has long worn its politics on its sleeve, it’s quite literally wrapping the views of its organizers on its mascot this year. The Berlinale Bear will don the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag, a clear reminder of the war that in its current mode began almost exactly a year ago and one still raging not far from where the event will take place. The opening remarks by Executive Director Mariette Rissenbeek and the Artistic Director Carlo Chatrian emphasized stories from that region are a central focus, noting their inherent “political value,” and reminding listeners that the city itself is home to thousands of people displaced from the conflict.

One project in particular is getting plenty of pre-fest attention. Sean Penn and Aaron Kaufmann were in Kyiv this time last year to film a portrayal of a television comedian-turned-politician, only to have world events intrude on the production. “Superpower” promises to provide unique insight into Volodymyr Zelensky’s character as his country shifted to a war footing, but also provides an outlet for Penn to express his own views on the situation. “Reality made the film change into something less comfortable and more meaningful,” Chatrian claimed at presser, and it will be interesting to see if the focus will remain on the subject rather than the Hollywood star co-helming the project.

Another focus for the fest’s programming this year is on Iran, a nation under turmoil where artists and activists alike are being imprisoned for their views. It was only last week that Golden Bear-winning director Jafar Pahani was released from his latest stint in prison following his initiation of a hunger strike. Last year, the festival banned all Russian-funded productions, while this year any films directly supported by the Iranian regime are also verboten.

Sreemoyee Singh’s timely “And, Towards Happy Alleys” features conversations with Panahi along with many others in Iran, discussing the very notion of artistic freedoms within a system intent on persecuting those that do not abide the party line. While it remains debatable whether such blanket bans help or hurt the artists working within the systems to speak their own truths, the action is a blunt instrument meant to help bring the cinema world’s intention to the nefarious actions of both the Russian and Iranian regimes.

The jury president this year is Kristen Stewart, and while much ink has been already spilled about her being the youngest ever to head the prestigious panel at 32 years of age it does bear reminding just how remarkable a run of film projects she’s engaged with in her now decades long career, shifting from a star-making YA franchise to some of the most beloved art films of the last few years. She is joined by Iranian/French actor Golshifteh Farahani, German filmmaker Valeska Grisebach, Golden Bear winner Radu Jude, American Casting maestro Francine Maisler (a very fascinating inclusion as craft members are rarely selected!), Spanish director Carla Simón and legendary Hong Kong icon Johnnie To.

It’s often the somber fare that gets all the attention from this festival, so it’s notable to see that Rebecca Miller’s romcom “She Came to Me” is set to open the fest. The film stars Peter Dinklage and Anne Hathaway and is one of the rare projects that brings with it a whiff of Hollywood. Another competition film, Matt Johnson’s “Blackberry,” is a rare Canadian contribution to the competition. Starring Jay Baruchel, it also promises to reflect a darkly comedic mood, a potentially perfect response during these trying times.

Berlin has long been home to some legends from the international arthouse crowd, and this year sees Silver Bear winner Hong Sang-soo bow his 29th film “In Water,” a film about filmmaking that runs a brisk 61 minutes. Iconic director Margarethe von Trotta bows her latest, “Ingeborg Bachmann – Journey into the Desert,” about the life of a poet and starring the ever prolific Vicky Krieps, and  Christian Petzold is set to bow his heated relationship drama “Afire”.

Rolf De Heer’s “The Survival of Kindness,” his first film since 2013 exceptional “Charlie’s Country,” also bows in competition, as does the anime “Suzume” by Japan’s Makoto Shinkai. Celine Song’s “Past Lives,” starring Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, which already bowed at Sundance to great acclaim, gets its international debut, while John Tengrove debuts Manodrome,” starring Adrien Brody and Jesse Eisenberg. Under the “Encounters” juried section, Leandro Koch’s “The Klezmer Project” looks to be quite promising, while American indie fave Dustin Guy Defa drops his latest collaboration with Michael Cera, “The Adults”.

Doc debuts include “The Echo” from Mexico, Paul B Preciado’s trans/non-binary hybrid film “Orlando, My Political Biography,” and Rogers Ross Williams (director of Sundance Luchador hit “Cassandro”) & Brooklyn Sudano’s “Love to Love You, Donna Summer about the iconic disco diva that made Berlin her home for many years.

The 73rd Berlinale Film Festival runs from February 16 to 23rd, 2023.

Jason Gorber

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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