Cop thriller takes top Berlin prize

Brazil's controversial "Elite Squad" nails Golden Bear; Errol Morris, Paul Thomas Anderson also honored.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 18, 2008 6:45PM (EST)

After what many observers felt was a down year at the Berlin International Film Festival, the closing weekend offered a little sting in its tail. Many critics felt strongly that Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" (which had its European premiere at the festival) would bring home the Golden Bear, Berlin's top jury prize, amid what seemed an uninspired selection of global cinema. Anderson indeed won the best-director award, but the Golden Bear went to Brazilian director José Padilha's cop thriller "Elite Squad," reportedly a violent and exciting film but one that got numerous critics pretty riled.

Shane Danielsen of indieWIRE, for instance, derides "Elite Squad" for its "rank misogyny" and "genuinely fascist sensibility." OK, but other than that -- was it awesome? In a post entitled "Harvey's Right-Wing Victory," blogger Filmbrain describes "Elite Squad" as "easily the worst film in competition" before flirting with some deep-end speculation about a Karl Rove-style conspiracy hatched by Harvey Weinstein, the picture's United States distributor: "Did Harvey in any way influence this win? We'll never know for sure, but I'm finding it increasingly difficult to believe this was the result of an honest vote."

In fairness, other bloggers and many Berlin viewers responded strongly to Padilha's nihilistic portrait of a no-holds-barred paramilitary police unit battling thugs, and wrestling with its own internal corruption, in Rio's favelas. "Many journalists didn't seem to have understood the film," Padilha told a press conference. His intention was to show "how the state turns the police into either corrupt police or police who don't want to do anything, or violent police," he said. It's worth noting that the Berlin jury was headed by Greek-born director Costa-Gavras, a lifelong lefty no one can accuse of supporting fascism. (We'll get to decide for ourselves when the Weinstein Co. releases "Elite Squad" later this year.)

The Silver Bear, Berlin's runner-up prize, went to Errol Morris' Abu Ghraib documentary "Standard Operating Procedure," which my colleague Stephanie Zacharek covered in her recent post from Berlin. I'm eager to see the film -- and I probably tolerate Morris' off-kilter documentary style better than Stephanie does, but let's face it: Giving an award to an American film that criticizes the U.S. government is pretty much par for the course at European film festivals. Stephanie also wrote about another film I can't wait to see, Mexican director Fernando Eimbcke's "Lake Tahoe," which won the festival's Alfred Bauer prize, given for artistic innovation. (Eimbcke's Jarmusch-meets-"Breakfast Club" debut film, "Duck Season," was one of the underappreciated delights of 2006; check it out if you haven't seen it.)

Berlin's best-actor award went to veteran Iranian actor Reza Naji for his role in Majid Majidi's "Song of Sparrows," a picture we might not see for a while, thanks to the frosty state of U.S.-Iranian relations. Best actress went to Sally Hawkins for her performance in Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky," another movie that seemed to delight audiences and displease critics. Chinese filmmaker Wang Ziaoshuai won the screenplay prize for "In Love We Trust," a domestic drama that drew similarly mediocre reviews.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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