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Opening film “Small Things Like These” with Cillian Murphy

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Opening film “Small Things Like These” with Cillian Murphy

At half past eight in the morning, the cinema world is still in order: a crowd of patient film fans has gathered at this early hour behind the barriers at the back entrance of the Hyatt Hotel. The hardcore fans at Potsdamer Platz still have to wait more than two hours this Thursday. Only then will the Berlinale jury around president and actress Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) slip in here and answer questions about her job over the next week and a half. But one thing is clear at this moment: the anticipation of Berliners for the 74th International Film Festival is huge.

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The speech-and-answer game in front of the international film press later doesn’t concern the cinema so much as the political aspect: the seven jury members are supposed to take a stand on the AfD, Putin, and the role of Africa, and they soon start talking around quite a bit. Until the German jury member Christian Petzold bursts his collar: “Even if films are political, I would like to be at a non-political festival,” says director Petzold (“Red Sky”). After all, he is here to watch 20 competition films – and to award the Golden Bear at the end.

Heated political atmosphere

Petzold’s outburst pointed to the politically charged atmosphere that will likely accompany the Berlinale until the end. In the meantime you can also see how the opening film was received.

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An opening film like this has to meet very specific requirements. It shouldn’t be too long. That’s fitting: “Small Things Like These” lasted hardly longer on Thursday evening than a Sunday “crime scene”.

Actors and directors demonstrate for democracy with a chain of lights on the red carpet on the opening night of the Berlinale.

He should bring at least one star to the red carpet. That was also certain: Lead actor Cillian Murphy is currently hoping for an Oscar as an atomic bomb physicist in “Oppenheimer”. He was joined by Emily Watson as the ruthless superior and US actor Matt Damon, here in his role as a film producer.

The pain of an entire country

An opening film should also leave its audience in a reasonably good mood. Finally, at the obligatory reception afterwards, you have to enjoy appetizers and champagne. And that’s exactly where the doubts about “Small Things Like These” begin: the film by Belgian director Tim Mielants is a depressing affair.

One man carries the pain of an entire country on his shoulders: In the mid-1980s, Irish coal dealer Bill Furlong (Murphy) almost collapses under the emotional burden he puts on himself alongside the heavy sacks. He must decide to challenge the all-powerful Catholic Church and thereby risk the well-being of his own family. First, however, the caring father of five daughters will have to fight a lengthy battle with himself, which also occurs in the film, before he faces the suffering in the Magdalenen home up on the mountain.

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These homes are a national wound in Ireland that is still festering today, a “collective trauma,” as the Irishman Murphy said in Berlin. Up to 30,000 young women with dubious lifestyles according to church standards were exploited during the 150-year history of these reformatories: they had become pregnant while unmarried. Their babies were sold to rich adoptive parents, often in the USA. Many children born in the homes died. Graves were discovered years later. The last home was only closed in 1996.

The Irish writer Claire Keegan wrote the acclaimed novel “Little Things” (Steidl Verlag). Director Mielants stays close. But what works in a book doesn’t necessarily work in a film. At Christmas, Man of Sorrows Furlong witnesses the injustice while delivering his coal in the monastery.

Everyone else in town apparently knows about it too, but they look the other way. Furlong can’t do that anymore. As the child of an unmarried mother, he himself could have ended up in one of these homes. Murphy’s coal merchant, struggling for decency and courage, is under unbearable psychological pressure. In the evening he scrubs his sooty hands almost bloody: there is no feeling of cleanliness. A good person despairs in a bad world.

They could hardly go wrong with the hero in penitential garb

The problem is that Murphy moves through this film, which is at least initially unevenly told with numerous flashbacks, with a single frame of mind. Moments of relief, of distraction? We watch the coal dealer remain silent. In 2002, director Peter Mullan’s “The Unmerciful Sisters” gave a more gripping account of the crimes in the Magdalene Homes from the perspective of the locked-up girls.

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Would this film have had a chance of taking pole position in the competition even without “Oppenheimer” star Murphy? The decision for “Small Things Like These” fits with an unsettled 74th Berlinale, which is looking for its own path between all the often contradictory political demands that are bombarding it.

Actor Cillian Murphy at the press conference for the opening film of the 74th Berlinale on Thursday.

She could do little wrong with this hero in penitent garb. The film is an urgent call to everyone to raise their voices against injustice. Nobody should object to this plea for humanity. Perhaps the Irish coal dealer will even inspire German film celebrities from Iris Berben to Lars Eidinger to Veronica Ferres and Jella Haase, who were there to celebrate late on Thursday evening.

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