- The second feature film by Germany’s Marcus Lenz observes the dynamics which take hold between Europeans and immigrants through the innocent eyes of a Ukrainian child
Children are known for deconstructing the world with the pure, enigmatic and imaginative force of their gaze, which can never be wholly captured on camera due to a boundary-defying eagerness to understand and capture the world. And it’s a 9-year-old boy named Roman (Yelizar Nazarenko) who is placed centre stage in Rival, a movie screening in Competition at the 2021 Bergamo Film Meeting which sees the child leave his rural village in the Ukraine, upon his grandmother’s death, to join his mother Oksana (Maria Bruni) in the German city where she works illegally.
Sunny and cheerful young woman Oksana lives with Gert (Udo Samel, Ernst "Buddha" Gennat of the Babylon Berlin series), a sixty-plus German man who is suffering with diabetes and has only been widowed for a matter of days. Despite being uprooted from the countryside and hidden from his new neighbours, Roman nonetheless discovers the joys of the supposed freedom which life in Europe entails, consisting of races through the park, bowling contests with Oksana and delicious apple crumbles. But he is also left reeling by his mother’s “betrayal” when he catches her in a compromising position with Gert one night. Here, the director can only hint at the complex, oedipal relationship between this little boy (without a father) and his mother. But he does so with just a few decisive brushstrokes, favouring close-ups on Yelizar Nazarenko’s extraordinarily expressive face and acts which betray the boy’s anger (Roman tries to poison his “rival”) and loneliness, which persists despite the love and care Oksana shows her child and the attempts Gert makes to forge a friendship with the boy.
Rival is Marcus Lenz’s second feature film after his 2004 movie Close. Before studying film direction and cinematography at the German Film and TV Academy (Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin) and working as a director of photography on TV and cinema documentaries, Lenz studied communication design at Essen’s Folkwang University of the Arts and at Helsinki’s University of Art and Design, and this training shows in the attention the director pays to image composition and the symbolic value of the signs which he incorporates into his shots. But this doesn’t translate into formalism; on the contrary, Lenz’s approach is wholly naturalistic, and his experience in the documentary field shines through (with photography coming courtesy of Frank Amann). Indeed, for the characters of Roman, Gert and Oksana, the director admitted that he was inspired by real-life people whom he himself had met and that he was fascinated by “powerful yet difficult to describe” relational dependencies.
Alas, the reality of the law barges in on the trio as they try to redefine family ties and dynamics. Oksana develops appendicitis and Gert is forced to leave her outside the hospital, on the ground, without any papers, like a wounded criminal post-shoot-out. Gert is a “good” western man like so many others, but he is also another cog in the wheel of what we might call “hospitality blackmail”, which drives millions of immigrants to forge lopsided relationships with those who offer them a home thousands of kilometres from their families. In order to escape the resulting police investigation, Gert moves to the countryside and takes care of Roman, acting as his father/guardian. The film’s epilogue is cruel, but it paves the way for a possible future; a future which will allow the boy to grow and become a citizen in whichever land he walks upon.
(Translated from Italian)
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