Sit down, and I'll tell you a story

A spectacularly intense fantasy is the pick of the Berlin festival crop

<strong>57th Berlin Intern

It was on my fourth day at this year's Berlin Film Festival that I received the kind of cinematic boost any festival-goer needs almost as badly as intravenous espresso. What I'd seen up until then had not been without merit. The opening film, La Vie en rose, is a grand biopic held together by Marion Cotillard's performance as Édith Piaf: with her popping eyes and petrified mouth, she's mesmerising in a kabuki kind of way. For I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK, set in the dream-world of patients at a Korean mental institution, Park Chan-wook swaps his trademark violence for a calculated whimsy that some might find even harder to stomach. Top marks, though, for the scene in which the hero yodels enthusiastically as the heroine is whisked away by a giant ladybird.

The combination of ice and grit on the streets of Berlin was reflected in The Good Shepherd, an analysis of the dawn of the CIA, directed with surgical precision by Robert De Niro. Matt Damon is the operative for whom international espionage becomes an excuse to avoid his family. And while three hours is a long time to spend in the teeth of a vice, it's worth it for the most loaded hug since Al Pacino clasped John Cazale in The Godfather Part II and seethed, "I know it was you, Fredo."

You'll have heard by now whether the Leonard Rossiter lookalike Karl Markovics got the Best Actor prize he deserved for his turn as a master forger in the riveting Austrian/German thriller The Counterfeiter. This true story, about concentration-camp prisoners put to work making forged bills to fund the Nazi war effort, is handled with deftness and flair. And I was gripped by the Italian drama In Memory of Myself, set among the new intake at a Venetian seminary. When things start going bump in the night, it becomes clear this is as much horror film as theological meditation. With Paul Schrader, patron saint of religious angst, as the Berlin jury president, there has to be some prize in the offing. How about Best Performance Without the Use of Facial Muscles for the lead actor, Christo Jivkov?

Out of competition, Schrader unveiled his own new picture, The Walker, in which Woody Harrelson is revelatory as a gay escort to the wives of powerful men. It's like Schrader's American Gigolo (1980), but with a pulse. Also revealing a new side was Julie Delpy, writer and director of the prickly comedy Two Days in Paris, about a New Yorker consumed by sexual jealousy when he realises he is dating a woman who could flirt in her sleep. Delpy's insights into Franco-US relations are pointed and funny.

Documentaries made a strong showing in Berlin. I got through several hankies during Lucy Walker's Blindsight, which follows an attempt by visually impaired Tibetan children to scale a Himalayan peak. Lynn Hershman Leeson's Strange Culture addresses the ordeal of the eco-artist Steve Kurtz, suspected of terrorism when emergency services arrived following the death of his wife and noticed bacteria samples nearby.

But on the fourth day of the festival came the most pleasant surprise: Tarsem Singh's visually ravishing, emotionally draining fantasy The Fall. It played in the "Generation 14plus" sidebar aimed at teenagers, which was a bit like stamping "Do Not See This Film" on the poster. What is actually stamped on the poster is "Spike Jonze and David Fincher present" - a mouth-watering endorsement that the film easily lives up to. In 1920s Los Angeles, a hospitalised stuntman (Lee Pace) offers to spin an epic story for a young girl (the unearthly newcomer Catinca Untaru) if she will steal morphine for him. The plot cuts between this friendship and the outlandish story-within-the-film.

What begins as a yarn about buccaneers in exotic climes becomes the site of a struggle for authorship, as the child tries to wrest control of the narrative from the storyteller, who has his broken heart set on an unhappy ending. No such disappointment for the audience. We left the cinema walking on air.

Pick of the week

Letters from Iwo Jima (15)
dir: Clint Eastwood
The second and better part of Eastwood's war lament.

Bamako (PG)
dir: Abderrahmane Sissako
Africa's oppressors are put on trial in this playful comic drama, which features a cameo from Danny Glover, star of Lethal Weapon.

The Bridge (18)
dir: Eric Steel
A year in the life of a suicide hot spot - the Golden Gate Bridge.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.