The 2008 European Film Awards and the Film They Couldn’t Refuse

You can’t really blame the European Film Academy voters for giving up in frustration. There were far too many good films to choose from, since this year, at least, the nomination process had miraculously weeded out all the pretentious arthouse dross that usually litters the choices. And certainly, this film had a winning combination: a courageous bestselling book by Roberto Saviano, an exciting screenplay, a smooth and professional director and a great actor, but really, now, 5 Efies?The big prize was European Film of The Year, and Gomorra had to face some real heavyweights: Il Divo, the fascinating albeit esoteric film about Italy’s former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, the Cannes Festival Golden Palm winner Entre les murs, Guillermo Del Toro’s production, the haunting thriller El Orfanato, the explosively innovative Waltz with Bashir and the crowd pleasing Happy Go Lucky. Gomorra came out on top, and that was fine.But then the waters get a bit murkier. The European Director Award for Gomorra’s Matteo Garrone was a surprise, since he had to share the philo-Italian voters with the highly stylized and imaginative work of Paolo Sorrentino for Il Divo. Sorrentino’s direction was really impressive, but perhaps the film, which opened late in the year, was not seen by enough voters. European Actor was a lot easier to predict, as it went to Toni Servillo, for his work in both Gomorra and Il Divo, but even there, the competition of Michael Fassbender for his awe inspiring performance in Hunger gave him a run for his money, as well as Jürgen Vogel in Die Welle (the Wave) a great performance which unfortunately may have gotten lost in the confusion. Then there was also the double whammy of Thure Lindhardt and Mads Mikkelsen in Flame & Citron, a Danish favorite which might have garnered votes to honor the Copenhagen venue for this year’s awards. But their performances were not extraordinary and they didn’t offer much competition, just ahead of Elmar Wepper who brought up the rear with his role in Kirschblüten (Cherry Blossoms) and James McAvoy in Atonement.Then the only way to explain the rest is momentum. The herd mentality that Europeans are famous for. The team of writers for Gomorra’s screenplay-by-committee won with their somewhat meandering script over the soul-searching musings of Waltz with Bashir and the seething poetry of Il Divo. Another surprise was Gomorra’s Marco Onorato winning Cinematographer of the Year over the sweepingly cinematic epic Mongol, the dark and eerie (though perhaps conventional) El Orfanato and the truly artistic (and ubiquitous also-ran) Il Divo.Mercifully, there were a few categories left over for other movies to get a chance. Kristen Scott Thomas won European Actress as the enigmatic ex-con in Il y a longtemps que je t’aime, a role she played all in French. This too was an overcrowded field: Arta Dobroshi as a disoriented Albanian guestworker in Belgium in Le Silence de Lorna, Hiam Abbass as a Palestinian landowner who becomes a cause célèbre in Lemon Tree, Ursula Werner as a senior citizen with lots of womanly needs in Wolke 9 as well as Sally Hawkins’ great comedic shtick in Happy Go Lucky and Belén Rueda’s driven-made-by-ghosts shtick in El Orfanato. My only regret here is that there was no room left over for Barbara Sarafian for her great performance in Moscow, Belgium (Aanrijding in Moscou).Other major awards went to Waltz with Bashir’s Max Richter for European Composer, and a well deserved award for European Discovery of 2008 for Hunger, directed by Steve McQueen. Magdalena Biedrzycka won the Prix d’Excellence for her 1940s costume designs in Katyn, and rounding out this group of feel-good winners was Dame Judi Dench, who won a Lifetime Achievement Award.As a whole the list of nominees was very satisfying, even if the end result was a bit lopsided. All of these films were deserving of recognition, even the deadly clunker Delta, which was a convincing nominee for production design. But then there was a sound design nomination for O’Horten. Really? O’Horten? The film about the deadpan train conductor who sleepwalks through a comedy drier than the Sahara? Were there really any sounds in this film at all? I guess every party’s got a pooper… Despite that, it was a fine year for European film, and the voters reflected that in their choices. AWOL this year were all the cheesy little festival favorites that open with 5 minutes of someone walking toward the camera on a country road and end with that same person staring soulfully into the sunset. So if there are any little Efies left over, one should go to the EFA voters for bringing these awards one giant step closer to being the most important European awards event of the year.