Film: City fights

Geoffrey Macnab assesses the 47th Berlin Film Festival

Neither as gaudy as Cannes in May nor with the same faded elegance as Venice in early autumn, Berlin is generally considered the most austere of the three major European festivals. But this year's Berlinale, the 47th, which finished earlier in the week, can hardly be accused of lacking local colour. During a fractious fortnight, there were spats about everything from festival funding and locations to scientology (German authorities don't much care for Hollywood's favourite cult) and American expansionism. Journalists came to blows (or, at least, one Australian head-butted a Dutch colleague.) The British argued among themselves about the future of the London film festival(s). There was bad blood between the Italians and Germans over the late withdrawal of a competition film. And, sacrilege of sacrileges, Lauren Bacall was booed during the press conference for her disastrously received film, Night and Day.

The festival started in stately enough fashion, with a speech about film, art and national identity from former French Culture Minister, Jack Lang, serving as president of the international jury. His rhetoric was rather more uplifting than the opening competition film, Billie August's soggy Euro-pudding, Smilla's Sense of Snow, which boasts nice picture postcard scenery of Greenland, pleasing explosions and a feisty performance from Julia Ormond (who affects a Nordic accent which even Meryl Streep might have blanched at), but otherwise hardly does justice to Peter Hoeg's acclaimed novel.

In its bizarre mix of leviathans and minnows, the 25-strong competition selection was a little baffling. Big-budget, studio-backed movies (The Crucible, The People vs. Larry Flynt, In Love and War) were pitted against such modest affairs as Twin Town, Kevin Allen's scabrous, Swansea-based comedy, Miss Nobody, Andrzej Wajda's dark but insubstantial allegory about a teenage girl adrift in contemporary Poland, and Get on the Bus, Spike Lee's $2.5m film about last year's million-man march in Washington. (Lee's film was financed, its credits proclaimed, by "15 African-American men," including Johnny Cochran, Danny Glover and Wesley Snipes.)

It is a moot point whether the big US films need the boost of a Berlin prize. Nevertheless, the jury's decision to award the Golden Bear to Milos Forman's The People Vs Larry Flynt was popular and arguably even a little courageous; Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine, isn't exactly a folk hero in the Frank Capra tradition and the anti-pornography lobby in the States have already reacted furiously to the film despite Forman's insistence that its real subject matter is freedom of speech. Regardless of the controversy surrounding it, Larry Flynt is a much stronger effort than the 1996 and 1995 Golden Bear winners, Sense and Sensibility and Bertrand Tavernier's atrocious L'Appat.

What of the rest of the prizes? Early favourite, The English Patient, already garlanded with Golden Globes and nominated for countless Oscars, won only a Best Actress Silver Bear for Juliette Binoche. The Best Actor gong went to Leonardo DiCaprio for his roistering Romeo in Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. The Special Jury Prize was awarded to Tsai Ming-Liang's Taipei-based psychodrama, The River (already hailed by some as "a future classic"); veteran Chilean director Raul Rulz won a Silver Bear for "his lifetime contribution to the art of cinema"; and Best Director award went to Eric Heumann (better known as Theo Angelopoulos' producer) for Port Djema.

Outside the competition, the British maintained a modest profile. Mark Herman's brass band and coal mining comedy-drama, Brassed Off, which had already opened Robert Redford's Sundance Festival in January, was warmly received in the Panorama Section. Herman, now hard at work on a new script "about an American lost in England", confirmed that the sight of Ewan McGregor blowing a trumpet has done wonders for UK brass band sales - the soundtrack CD, recorded in the Beatles' old haunt Abbey Road, has sold more than 50,000 copies. Trainspotting producer Andrew Macdonald, in Berlin for the screening of Twin Town (which he executive-produced), announced the formation of a joint venture with Duncan Kenworthy (of Four Weddings and a Funeral fame). This doesn't necessarily mean that we're going to see a rash of films about drug addicts in morning suits.

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