Big Screen Berkeley: ‘This Is Not Berlin’ and ‘White Balloon’

‘This Is Not Berlin’

Last week, we encountered an octet of Italian youngsters behaving badly on the backstreets of Naples. This week, a pair of Mexican schoolboys engage in some slightly less naughty business in Esto no es Berlin (This Is Not Berlin, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Aug. 30). Bad boys and cinema, it seems, remain an irresistible combination.

Happily, director Hari Sama’s film departs from the routine after its first couple of reels. Set in Mexico City a few years after the devastating 1985 quake, This Is Not Berlin is more interested in the coming of age misadventures of its character, Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de Leon) and Gera (Jose Antonio Toledano), two teenage boys hurtling pell-mell towards adulthood.

Gera’s older sister Rita (Ximena Romo Mercado) is a rebel who reads Patti Smith’s poetry in literature class; when she’s not in school she’s performing with boyfriend Tito in Manifesto, an avant-pop band frequently booked at Aztec, a super cool nightclub. An inveterate tinkerer who builds his own robots, Carlos is a dab hand at things electronic, and after fixing the band’s synthesizer begs Rita to sneak him and Gera into the club.

Reluctantly, she agrees. The Aztec is where Mexico City’s outcasts — its punks, artists, and gay and lesbian residents — come together, and it’s a real eye-opener for the boys. Carlos stops listening to Alvin Lee and Judas Priest, quickly graduating to performance art events where collectives such as Assembly On Fire destroy cars in Survival Research Laboratories fashion.


Now sporting a wacky hair-do and make-up, Carlos befriends scene veteran Nico (Mauro Sanchez Navarro), a club hanger-on who wanders the dance floor every night sucking on cigarettes and nursing cheap drinks. Meanwhile, Gera meets slimy drug dealer Ajo (David Montalvo) and experiences an unexpected sexual awakening. In the immortal words of Lulu, how do you thank someone who’s taken you from crayons to perfume? You’ll have to buy a ticket to find out.

Though This Is Not Berlin treads some fairly well worn narrative territory, it does do a fine job recreating the music and art of the eighties. Manifesto’s music reflects the influences of the day, blending Smith-style verse with the pop nous of The Cure and the improvisational psychedelia of The Legendary Pink Dots, while two mud-daubed performers will remind avant-garde art enthusiasts of the unforgettable Kipper Kids. If you wasted your young adulthood at San Francisco’s I-Beam, you’ll definitely enjoy this film.

‘White Balloon’

Screening at Pacific Film Archive at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 30 as part of the series ‘Movie Matinees for all Ages‘, Badkonake sefid (White Balloon) is a wonderful slice of neorealism from Iranian director Jafar Panahi. Panahi is especially skilled at making films about children and young women, and this is perhaps his best work.

Tiny Aida Mohammadkhani plays a 7-year-old entrusted by her mother to purchase a fish for New Year’s, but — as 7 year olds are wont to do — she loses the money she’s been entrusted with. Told from a child’s eye view, Panahi’s film (co-written by Abbas Kiorastami) details her quixotic quest to recover it, with a parade of kind, not-so-kind, and sometimes clueless adults helping or impeding her progress. White Balloon is thoroughly delightful, and suitable for all ages.