Families on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

in 10th Lecce Festival of European Cinema

by Paola Casella

Fathers incapable of handling the responsibilities of fatherhood; absent mothers and wives — whether because they died, or left, or decided to shut off emotionally from their children and partners, or mothers much too present in their sons’ lives, to the point of emotional castration. Dysfunctional couples who download their frustration on their children; husbands who punish their wives for being too strong willed; and children orphaned by their parents, dead or alive (in any case, missing). These are the variations on the family theme shown in competition at the 10th edition of Lecce’s European Film Festival, where ten promising features portrayed European families as quietly (or not so quietly) imploding, their members turning against each another, and the younger and weaker ones coming up as the victims.

What is frightening is that, judging by the festival’s selection, those few themes — family collapse, parental inadequacy, men’s identity loss turning into violence towards women, women’s rejection of their maternal role — have been repeating themselves throughout recent European cinematography; from Italy to Spain, from Germany to Denmark, from Russia to Croatia to Hungary. It sounds suspiciously like an indictment of a continent unable to cope with social and economic changes and pressures, especially on the family structure.

The Danish film in competition, Fear Me Not (Den du frygter) by Kristian Levring, tells the story of a model husband and father who, after quitting his job, sees his identity crumbling and starts to question his satisfaction with his beautiful house and his beautiful wife, of who he believes is far too assertive for his fragile ego. By taking part in a medical experience, he finds the pills (or the guts?) to stand up for himself and show his dark side, including the aggressiveness so socially unacceptable. In the Flesh (In carne e ossa) by Christian Angeli, the Italian entry, is a vampire movie of sorts: two unhappily married parents prey on their teenage daughter, who sometimes live their unhappiness through bouts of anorexia and self destruction. Her only chance for survival will be to escape from that poisonous vipers’ nest.

In the Spanish film Awaking for a Dream (Amanecer de un sueño) by Freddy Mas Franqueza it is a mother who flees from her son, abandoning him in the care of his grandfather (a man of a former generation, apparently more equipped for parenthood) because she chooses her life of passion and personal freedom over her family responsibilities. That abandonment (coupled with the unexplained absence of a father) puts a dramatic spin on the child’s entire life, and teaches him the hardest lesson of all (a lesson for our times?): Keep your loved ones in your heart even if they leave you behind, for reasons you may never know nor understand. In Hungary’s Tranquility (A Nyugalom) by Róbert Alföldi, on the other hand, the mother in the story never leaves the side of her son: she treats him like a servant whose job is to satisfy her every whim and refuses to put his best interest before her vanity and ego. The dark shadow of incest hangs over both the Spanish and the Hungarian movie, as over many of the other films in the European Film Festival’s competition, and the unrequited love of the sons for their selfish mothers is the source of endless pain and crippling inability to face life as male adults.

In Croatia’s Kino Lika by Dalibor Matanic, which won the competition’s first prize, a young man kills his mother by accident and lives (or rather survives) to regret it, while a young orphaned woman feels so unlovable that she ends up groveling in the mud with a pig; an old mother looks for her lost son, and that son, a stubborn farmer, is so inept at fatherhood that he prefers to give water to his cows than to his son, who is desperately sick and thirsty. While in Germany’s The Architect (Der Architekt) by Ina Weisse a man who tries his best to be a good father turns out to have deserted his natural son, while his relationship with his daughter borders (again!) with incest.

Only Russia’s The Fly (Mukha) by Vladimir Kott tells the story of a man who, upon finding out he has had a daughter from a casual relationship, decides to try his hand at fatherhood, without letting his inexperience and lifelong commitment to independence discourage him. He is not the perfect father, but his determination to do his best and stand by his child will make him grow into the role.