The Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival is an intimate affair. It features a relatively small number of films, most of which are the work of filmmakers near the start of their careers, most of which are given a generous number of screenings and find a warm welcome. Receptions are relaxed, inviting, beer-laden, cozy. The event is reminder of the curious way that smaller film festivals can serve as a kind of fleetingly assembled surrogate family, individuals from all points on the globe brought together by a shared enthusiasm for that most quixotic of arts. So it feels appropriate that so many of the more remarkable films at MH 2013 tell stories of surrogate families, of individuals either set adrift in life or confined by it, in many cases stricken with grief, unable to take solace in blood relatives yet blessed to whatever degree by the introduction of some unexpected kinship with another.
In Maximilian Hult’s Home (Hemma), a newly widowed rural Icelandic retiree befriends a portly, redheaded ten-year-old boy — both are supporting characters, though they appear in more than half of the film’s scenes. The pair quickly becomes inseparable, with the boy cutting school regularly so as to commit himself to their quest to discover and nurture whatever vocation he was born to excel at. The persistent elusiveness of this vocation — the kid tries his hand at music, cooking and interior decorating with consistently dismal results — is the source of a great deal of the film’s best gags, which is heightened by Hult’s comic timing, his judicious editing, his knack for, say, cutting away before a question is answered, i.e.: Why is the boy wearing a fake moustache?
It’s eventually made explicit that the woman is on some unconscious level confusing the boy with her dead husband, rendering this subplot a sort of comic variation of Jonathan Glazer’s Birth. It’s tempting to wonder what might have happened if Hult allowed their story to veer just a few steps further into the perverse terrain Glazer’s film explores. Near Home’s beginning, the woman’s long-estranged daughter warns her own daughter of the woman’s potential for cruelty — this is a comedy, but underlying everything is a long, fraught narrative of familial strife. This ostensible cruelty never surfaces at all, and Home finally seems content to stick with its homier comforts: eccentric, often inspired behavioral comedy and an enjoyable but pedestrian A-story that features an isolated and awkward but pretty young woman finding romance.
In Taiwanese director Elsa Yang’s My Mandala (Yuan Lai Ni Hai Zai) a young grifter winds up impersonating a Buddhist monk so as to gain the confidence of an upper-middle-class woman grieving for her dead son. The grafter is invited into the woman’s home, where he is fed and given a private room — the dead son’s, of course — in exchange for conducting daily prayer rituals. He will inevitably become something of a surrogate for the dead son and achieve some modest state of enlightenment despite, or rather because of, his commitment to his ruse and fundamental goodness — there are many routes to heaven, even pretending that you’re a holy man engaged in some special dialogue with the divine.
Somewhat similarly, in Texan writer-director Chris Eska’s American Civil War drama The Retrieval, an adolescent African-American boy escorts a middle-aged freed African-American man across a precariously war-torn, wintry Southern landscape under the pretense of helping him find his long-lost brother — in truth, the boy works for bounty hunters selling blacks into slavery and their journey is a nefarious trap. As is the case of My Mandala, we can see where this is going a mile away, yet, as with My Mandala, there are small, well-acted, emotionally resonant scenes in the second half of The Retrieval between the central characters that transcend some of the film’s narrative clichés.
In Iranian writer-director Benham Behzadi’s Bending the Rules (Ghaedeye Tasadof), an entire Tehran theatre company operates — and arguably fails — as a supportive surrogate family for its lead actress when her father demands that she withdraw from the company on the eve of their going abroad to perform at a festival. The film’s one-shot-per-scene strategy — the absence of cuts aligns the film somewhat with the fluid experience of live theatre — features elegant, meticulously organized camera and choreography and, in a long confrontation between the father and daughter in a vast parking garage, it allows for a great deal of engaging background activity. However, as the story progresses, the foreground activity and its much-bantered about dilemma gradually loses its impact.
The notion of a group or institution taking on — and again, failing in — a substitute familial role is more fully realized in Slovenian director’s Rok Bicek’s Class Enemy (Razrednisov raznik). An icy, mercilessly stern new German teacher arrives at a high school only a short while before one of his student suicides. The teacher speaks frankly and without emotion about grief and getting on with things and incorporates texts that deal with grief into his classes — these are all attempts to marry tragedy with pedagogy that most of his students wholly reject. He does absolutely nothing to ingratiate himself to his students — nor does the actor playing the teacher do anything to make the character more appealing for the audience — and his students turn against him in an almost wholly united front and even publicly blame him for their peer’s suicide, rather stupidly referring to the teacher’s teaching regimen as Nazi in character. The teacher is, as mentioned, a relentless disciplinarian, but to my estimation what he is trying to offer his students is nearly always perfectly sensible — it’s his delivery that’s problematic. With the exception of the closing scene, Class Enemy unfolds entirely within the school. The only scene featuring the students’ mostly out-of-touch parents is, above all, comical and ultimately of limited consequence. In this film, the world is the classroom. Bicek covers nearly all his scenes in straightforward quasi-documentary fashion and displays a truly masterful sense of tonal control. The tension is held at a high pitch all the way through.
Drift, writer-director Benny Vandendriessche’s tremendously visceral and moving collaboration with theatre artist Dirk Hendrikx, finds a man wandering what seems like the most desolate, abandoned places on Earth — deserts, mountains, the skeletal ruins of buildings — following the death of his wife. In this case the only surrogate family is a pack of stray dogs who follow him everywhere, fellow gypsies adrift without destination. These dogs may seem a paltry substitute for a cherished loved one, but at least they’re loyal. They only ever leave the man’s side when he reaches land’s end and takes to the sea.
© FIPRESCI 2013