A whirlwind romance leads to an unexpectedly dark and destructive place in Anne Zohra Berrached’s Copilot, one of the stronger films in this year’s Panorama section. The early scenes play out like a typical (but immediately engaging) opposites attract / culture clash romantic drama – Asli (Canan Kir) and Saeed (Roger Azar) meet cute at a college party in Germany, hit it off instantly, and quickly form an intense bond. The two plan to marry, and while Saeed’s wealthy Lebanese parents couldn’t be more delighted, Asli’s working class Turkish mother disapproves. The evening of the engagement, we learn of friction within Saeed’s family – his parents want him to give up his lifelong dream of being a pilot to instead become a dentist. The film chronicles the next five years as the relationship begins to deteriorate due to Saeed’s increasingly difficult and secretive behavior. Berrached carefully controls the slow-burning suspense while we start to wonder what exactly Saeed is hiding. Does he have a side piece? Is he involved in some illegal activity…or something far more sinister? The mystery takes its heroine to Beirut for a stressful trip to meet her beau’s parents and eventually the action moves to the States, and at this point it all starts to sink in. We’d have to give away a major piece of the plot to explain why, but American audiences might have a hard time clicking with the film’s emotional centerpiece – a truly devastating elevator scene in which we hear the beautiful words of a complete monster while cinematographer Christopher Aoun uses a subtle and effective trick involving mirrors. The result is a punch straight to the gut that forces us to ask ourselves if we ever really know the people with whom we share our beds.
We’re just starting to see the first batch of films shot during the Covid19 pandemic, and Natalie Morales’ delightful new dramedy Language Lessons stands head and shoulders above the others released thus far. Mark Duplass (who also co-wrote the script with Morales) stars as Adam, a wealthy California gay man whose husband gifts him Spanish lessons with Cariño, a Cuban-born woman living in Costa Rica. When tragedy strikes one of their personal lives, the two form an unlikely bond in their weekly online meetings that results in a rather complicated friendship. Ok, so…movies that take place mostly in chat windows can be incredibly tedious, but not this one, fam. Although we’re watching two people video chatting with each other for 90 minutes, this film isn’t boring to look at and the format never becomes irritating. Working from a script that demands intense vulnerability (the story touches some heavy topics like grief, death, intimacy via technology, the white savior complex), the friends-in-real-life actors have palpable platonic chemistry and volley off each other in a lovely and natural way that makes the whole thing perfectly believable. A small but immensely likable film with winning performances and a big heart, Language Lessons offers a nuanced look at the universal need for connection while exploring the durability of relationships that spring from traumatic events.
One of America’s most notorious domestic right-wing terrorists gets the biopic treatment in Tony Stone’s Ted K, an unconventional portrait of The Unabomber’s life before his 1996 arrest. Sharlto Copley (who also co-produced) stars as Ted Kaczynski, a loner with a fervent hatred of technology who lives off the land in a tiny cabin in the woods. Opening with gorgeous shots of Montana scenery and Blanck Mass’ memorably ominous synth score, we meet Ted stalking a family cabin before breaking in and destroying their snowmobiles with an ax, and the following two hours follow its antihero as his crimes escalate from local nuisance stuff (like cutting down power lines) to sending mail bombs that eventually land him on the FBI’s most wanted list. Ted K excels as haunting character study that forgoes the typical law enforcement narrative – other filmmakers would probably cut back and forth between the terrorist and the police investigation – Stone instead focuses the lens squarely on Ted, and this offers a deeper insight to what made this person (and his bombs) tick. Rather than demonizing its subject, Stone empathizes (but doesn’t sympathize) with Kaczynski’s motives (mostly his disgust with environmental destruction). Stone also isn’t afraid to explore sexual loneliness – a payphone call with Ted’s mom indicates he never got past first base with a woman (which makes sense based on the regressive manner in which he treats a female co-worker in one scene). Haunting touches like intermittent voiceover from diary entries, dream sequences involving an imaginary 50s-style cookie cutter wife, and numerous little moments portraying a man at odds with the modern world create one of the most uncomfortable and fascinating biopics in recent memory.
All three films premiered today at the Berlinale online industry event.