Berlin 2011 Review: EL PREMIO - Excessively Dull But Well Observed

Opening on a long, single-take shot of a young girl attempting to roller skate on an overcast beach, competition entrant El Premio (The Prize) starts as it means to go on. It's another piece of bleak, festival-friendly slow cinema with repetitive images and little dialogue or music. In the spirit of an international film festival, it's a decidedly multi-national affair too, with the film preceded by so many different film funding logos that people began to laugh as each new one came up. In the end it's listed as a Mexican/French/Polish and German co-production, although that seems like a dishonest description as it fails to mention that the film is set in Argentina and written and directed by Argentine Paula Markovitch. It is a very specific Argentinian story in fact, based on the life of its author as a seven year old girl growing up in the 1970s. A precocious and thoughtful young girl is living a secluded existence with her mother on a perpetually windswept shore as they hide from the fascistic military dictatorship which has arrested her father and killed other members of the family - presumably as alleged ideological opponents. Exhausted by the girl's boredom in their run-down shack, the mother (Sharon Herrera) reluctantly allows her daughter (played by the excellent and expressive young Paula Galinelli Hertzog) to attend a local school - so long as she sticks to a well rehearsed back story: "my father sells curtains and my mother is a housemaid". Inevitably the film's few moments of crisis revolve around the institution's possible discovery of the girl's real identity and the deadly consequences that might carry with it - a fear that is exacerbated when a group of soldiers comes to the school to talk to the children about patriotism and assigns each child an essay about the army. Echoing the sentiments and themes of Pablo Larrain's brilliant and brutal Chilean satires Tony Manero and Post Mortem, El Primio looks at the day to day infiltration of ideology into every aspect of this young girl's life. She can't escape it, be it from the state, the military, her dissident mother or the Catholic church - as represented by a statue of Mary which provokes her (at a friend's insistence) to learn and to perform the sign of the cross ritualistically, in lieu of answers she seeks about her father's whereabouts. There is much to commend in El Premio, but sadly not quite enough. The young girl is really good and carries the film, whilst the political and historical aspect is fascinating. However, experience has taught me that you have to be a little weary when a film's "director's statement" in the festival programme takes the form of a poem. Indeed, El Premio is a little light on entertainment value and is firmly set on wearing you down with its relentless scenes of children playing on the beach (they must take up 85% of the film). These scenes are beautifully observed, and the way government ideology is shown to have infiltrated the education system is masterful, but the film offers no surprises after the first half-hour or so and has nowhere else to go. Perhaps it might have made a more compelling short subject? Worse still, what little music there is is amateurish, whilst the images are often out of focus in a way which - if intentional (and it probably is, in sporting parlance, at this level) - is certainly not aesthetically pleasing or evocative of any particular mood. Probably the most damning thing of all is that I felt nothing whilst watching it, which is troubling for a film about a child caught up in such traumatic events. El Premio is interesting historically and politically, but sadly it doesn't register as much interest as a piece of cinema. It is an excessively dull work that plays into the hands of those who would dismiss slow cinema whilst offering little to those (like myself) who find themselves excited by the movement more generally. Pablo Larrain it isn't. Though it has more to say for itself than Margin Call, so maybe this year's main competition here in Berlin is steadily building up to a spectacular climax at the end of the second week. I live in hope.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.