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SUNDANCE 2020 World Cinema Dramatic Competition

Review: Exile

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- Heaps of dead rats and a burning stroller: office bullying takes on a severe dimension in Visar Morina's sophomore film

Review: Exile

From the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at Sundance to Panorama at the impending Berlinale, Kosovo-born Germany-based filmmaker Visar Morina returns to the festival circuit five years after 2015’s Father [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Visar Morina
film profile
]
, with Exile [+see also:
trailer
interview: Visar Morina
film profile
]
.

Delving into the day-to-day anguish of pharmaceutical engineer Xhafer (Mišel Matičević), Morina tells the story of a Kosovar-Albanian man going mad in suburban Germany. While his unhappy and grudging partner (Sandra Hüller) juggles a postdoctoral research project and taking care of their three children, Xhafer is increasingly preoccupied by petty office transgressions. When his colleagues leave him out of the office e-mail list and withhold data crucial to his reports, his concerns quickly turn into volatile obsessions. Things fly off the rails as his abusers viciously start tapping into his phobia of lab rats. Racism, a strained marriage and all-consuming doubt: how much can a suburban dad handle? With the help of Ulrich Köhler (A Voluntary Year [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Henner Winckler
film profile
]
) as his co-writer, Morina carefully intensifies the man's discomfort. The result is a dark drama with the feverish appearances of a thriller.

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The cinematography of Matteo Cocco (the DoP on On My Skin [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
) is defined by yellowish and greenish colours that recall something rotten and long past an acceptable expiration date. It's an adequate palette for the suffocating and labyrinthine office interiors that Xhafer has to frequent. He roams, with the camera in tow, through endless claustrophobic and dark hallways where he opens numerous doors while others close them. This metaphor perfectly fits the utter mindfuck that is latent (and sometimes blatant) racism. Cocco's tightly controlled compositions allow off-screen elements to interact with the different layers, depths and empty spaces of the frame, amplifying the whirlwind of emotions that Xhafer experiences.

Paranoia spins a web over Xhafer's life as composer Benedikt Schiefer (The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Karim Aïnouz
film profile
]
) writes the score to it. Building up the tension, he perfectly captures the visceral ubiquity of Xhafer's torment. The soundtrack, punctuated at irregular intervals by clanking, reverberating sounds and high-pitched piano keys, is both hypnotising and menacing.

While the micro-aggressions aren't a figment of his imagination (they're inherent in the very white, very hostile work environment), it is Xhafer's clouded perception that dominates the narrative. His wife, seemingly downplaying the office bullying, confronts him early on: “Did it ever occur to you that it’s not because you’re a foreigner,” she asks, “but because you’re an asshole?” We quickly come to understand that Xhafer is much more than just a victim – much like the Other is more than the stereotype we have made him in our Western society. Awkward silences between Xhafer and his wife wrap themselves around the suspicions and the distrust that fuel their relationship. As the friction between him and his colleagues escalates, we see his world fall apart and his mind crumble. The more his paranoia increases, the more beads of sweat Xhafer's forehead seems to produce. Constantly on edge, he walks a fine line between being palpably agitated and utterly lost. The protagonist is effectively exiled from his own life, and it is enthralling to watch.

Exile is a co-production of Kosovo (Ikonë Studio), Germany (Maren Ade's Komplizen Film, and WDR Westdeutscher Rundfunk) and Belgium (Frakas), sold internationally by The Match Factory.

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