At the Berlin Film Festival, Reconsidering the Power of Doubt

Doubt gets a bad rap. Doubt is fussy and forgetful, whereas certainty strides around, all action and achievement. As a film critic, swift, declarative certainty is a quality I’ve learned to aspire to. And at times, to fake.

But this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, which runs through Sunday, has been buffeted outside and in by political turbulence and organizational shake-ups. And so perhaps because the event itself is experiencing such uncertain times, the films made me reconsider — actually, doubt — my dismissive stance on doubt.

Doubt is etched on Cillian Murphy’s hollow, striking features in Tim Mielants’s grave and moving “Small Things Like These,” which opened the festival last week. Based on a novella by Claire Keegan — whose “The Quiet Girl” was adapted into an Oscar-nominated feature in 2022 — the film is set in 1985 in the town of New Ross, Ireland, which is home to one of the Magdalene laundries, the infamously abusive church-run institutions to which pregnant, unwed women and girls were sent in shame to have their babies, who were then taken from them. In this case, the chief perpetrator of the abuse is Sister Mary (a frostbitten Emily Watson), who has clearly never had a doubt in her life. But the movie is really about Murphy’s quietly anguished coal deliveryman, Bill, and his deepening crisis of conscience.

It takes considerable bravery for Bill to go against the unspoken rules of a community conspiring in silence. But as a man and a family patriarch, it is an avenue available to him. In Maryam Moghadam and Behtash Sanaeeha’s sweet and funny “My Favourite Cake,” the options are different for the Tehran-based widow Mahin (Lily Farhadpour), even if her spirit, too, is chafing against an oppressive religious social order. Her instantaneous love connection with a similarly lonely taxi driver challenges Iranian conventions in this glowingly performed rom-com that turns unnecessarily dark late on, when Mahin is punished for the act of gentle rebellion that the movie otherwise celebrates.

Lily Farhadpour, left, in “My Favorite Cake,” directed by Maryam Moghadam and Behtash Sanaeeha.Credit…Hamid Janipour

For a more satisfying, if low-key, depiction of lonely social outcasts finding a spark of solace in each other, there is the Japanese director Sho Miyake’s lovely “All The Long Nights.” Mone Kamishiraishi plays Misa, whose debilitating, personality-altering PMS makes adhering to Japan’s rigid codes of politeness mortifyingly difficult. But the friendship she strikes up with a co-worker who is plagued with panic attacks becomes a source of mutual support: It will likely be one of the most touching platonic relationships of the moviegoing year.

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