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From the Berlinale: Madonna

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Perfect stretched pink glossed smile, 3 second timed eyelash blinks, carefully widened eyes of surprise, a lighthearted toss of the head and a time-delayed sultry chuckle: everything about Madonna is controlled. I marveled at the one detail of nonchalance: her brown roots were showing in thin lines across her part, but a fellow journalist at the press conference explained that this too is a purposeful effect: without the roots, the hair would seem too blonde and age her.

She is impressive, Madonna. Evidently it takes such control to be such a phenomenal success.

Madonna has controlled everything: except the outcome of her first film. Her directorial debut at Berlin, "Filth and Wisdom", is a charming, amateurish comedy about three down-and-outs trying to make it in England: a Ukrainian rock star (played by real rock star Eugene Hutz), a want-to-be African-charity-do-gooder (Vicky McClure), and an aspiring dancer, played by innocent blonde Holly Weston (who is as girlishly unaffected off stage as on, with spontaneous looks of wonder in her wide blue eyes, contrasting a bit severely next to Madonna, poised in her whipped-smooth skin and Count Dracula black gauze dress).

"Filth and wisdom" are part of the duality of life, Madonna explained to us. When one is in filth, one wants wisdom, and vice versa. She has lead character AK say pretty much the same thing, in taglines at the end of the film, which is a good thing, because without overt statement, neither theme would be apparent in the film. There is no filth, but three gawky characters bent on one object only: the realization of their dreams, in a series of comic episodes. And there is no wisdom. What is surprising about Madonna's first film is that she, co-screenwriter and director, doesn't seem to reveal any particularly original vision, after such an extraordinary life. We do, on the other hand, have many cute scenes which made the Berlinale crowd laugh. AK cross-dresses and wears big funny wigs, in his side business dominating pleading men. The innocent dancer, after being smacked on the cheeks by a grotesque dance hall manager, has to learn how to dance sexily with a pole, trained by an older more cynical hardnosed stripper. The would-be charity-girl has a penchant for stealing medicine from the Indian pharmacist she works for, while he likes to watch the crack between her legs as she stands on a stool.

The highlight of the film is what is out of control: the mad Ukrainian singer. If we strip away the film, and just watch him--bursting into funny clichés from the home country (these are quite good)--the spectacle works. His comments are spontaneously ribald: "If you want to reach the sky, fuck a duck and learn to fly."

At the press conference, Madonna explained that she loved the gypsy punk music of Hutz' band Gogol Bordello, and was drawn to the gypsy theme herself: "What's so attractive about the gypsy? Secretly I want to be a gypsy. I like the idea of traveling around the world and just playing music and letting life unfold in a spontaneous sort of way. There is a kind of authenticity in gypsies I have met, and I hope I embody a certain aspect of that in my own work."

None of that spontaneity came across in her own self-presentation, except when she noted--almost openly--that she still, despite her material success, struggles with light and dark. Nor is there enough verve in her film, which begins with the cliché shot of a man puffing a cigarette and slugging a beer (preparing us for more generic images), as if she is cautiously testing the waters to please American audiences with a light American dream story. "This is not the Madonna of the 1980s who I adored," quipped one fan. "Madonna back then was Madonna. We adored Madonna. She was daring. We went to see her in the clubs. The city was different back then in the 1980s. Madonna was wild. Absolutely wild and daring. She was Madonna."

Now Madonna bears a slightly British clipped accent (she lives in London ) and reveals as little about her real vision (which I imagine she does indeed have) in her adolescent-pleasing film as she does in the press conference. The gypsy role is left to Andrly Hutz. As for "Filth and Wisdom", it will be released on internet, on YouTube, Madonna says, because "that is an unconventional way to watch a film and I like to be unconventional."