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Berlinale film explores lives lived on Zoom

BERLIN —  The past year has been challenging for filmmakers, who had to battle coronavirus travel restrictions and social distancing rules to participate in what is ordinarily a team activity. But one film in this year’s Berlin Film Festival line-up embraced the spirit of the pandemic like no other: American director Natalie Morales’s Language Lessons is a drama enacted via Zoom, revealing new artistic possibilities in the process.

The film casts Ms. Morales as Carino, a language teacher from Costa Rica giving Spanish lessons via video call to Adam, a wealthy Oakland, California house husband played by Mark Duplass. But a sudden emotional blow transforms their relationship.

“We didn’t know if it would work,” Ms. Morales said of the film, shot over the summer by a skeleton crew entirely from the perspective of the two characters’ webcams. “We didn’t really know how we were going to shoot it or if it was going to look good or if people were going to be bored to death or if we were going to be bored to death,” she added.

Mr. Duplass, who co-wrote the script with Ms. Morales, said he had been inspired by the experience of taking online language classes during lockdown. “We developed a bond just through the screen. And I thought this could be an interesting way to make a movie with the limitation of the COVID lockdown,” he said.

All of the films in this year’s Berlinale were shaped by the pandemic they were shot during. Actors wear masks in several films, notably Romanian director Radu Jude’s black sex comedy Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, whose characters seem to poison their own environment as efficiently as any virus.

But Language Lessons embraces the lived experiences of home workers during a pandemic year, exploring the curious ambivalence and intensity of online relationships conducted over weeks and months. “We’re still tired of Zoom, but we’re so used to it that it’s a language we understand,” Ms. Morales said. “You relate to the nature of that relationship in a way that you wouldn’t have two years ago.” — Reuters

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