Both of Monday’s Competition premieres used the death of a pedestrian in a car accident as their starting point, evolving into considerations of the culprits’ ensuing quandaries, radically disparate in approach as well as quality.
In Pia Marais’ Layla Fourie, the titular protagonist is a single mother of one working as a polygraphist in Johannesburg. After being assigned to conduct lie detector tests on job applicants at a casino, she drives with her young son to the faraway location. En route, she accidentally hits and kills a man with her car. Afraid of the likely consequences for a black woman killing a white man in a country still haunted by the ghost of apartheid, she decides not to report the incident to the police and buries the body in a garbage dump instead. On her first day of work, one of the applicants she tests happens to be the son of the man she killed. That same afternoon, she runs into him again at a shopping mall and ends up spending large portions of the next several days with him and his mother-in-law, her secret creeping ever closer to the surface as their search for the missing man intensifies.
Every plot development and character decision in Layla Fourie is utterly implausible. How likely is it for Layla to run into the son of her victim the very next morning? How about twice on the same day? Why wouldn’t she keep as much distance from the family as she can? Such an extreme level of contrivance precludes a satisfactory examination of the moral complexity of Layla’s predicament or of the critical social issues that the film initially seems to address and then all but forgets. Instead, the viewer is simply left waiting for more preposterous fabrications, which are kept in steady supply right up until the lackluster conclusion.
The opposite holds true for Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose, yet another worthy entry in Romania’s excellent catalog of trenchant social realist dramas. Here the focus is on Cornelia, an elderly and wealthy architect whose son, Barbu, kills a 14-year-old child from a poor family while driving on the freeway. Though Barbu despises his mother, she embarks on an unsolicited crusade to get him off the hook, either through her wide-ranging connections or by resorting to petty bribery. The portrait that emerges is one of a woman who will stop at nothing to save her child from prison, but it is impossible to determine whether it is maternal love or brazen self-interest that drives her, thus keeping the viewer in perpetual flux between empathy and contempt. The same is true of Barbu, whose petulant self-righteousness constantly undermines the contrition that so evidently haunts him. The whole film makes exceptional use of ambivalence. The killing of a child is an unequivocally abhorrent act, but the given circumstances are not—Barbu was only speeding to overtake a belligerent driver and could not have seen the child recklessly run over the freeway—which compounds the moral complexity of the characters, disallows categorical judgment, and escalates to a climax of stupefying intensity when the victim’s family is brought into the picture in the final scene.
Another outstanding premiere on today’s program was Mexican writer/director José Luis Valle’s feature debut Workers, which screened in Panorama. Lidia works as a maid for an ailing rich woman in Tijuana, spending her days caring for her employer’s greyhound Princesa, a trophy dog fed on steak and Voss mineral water served to her in golden bowls. Rafael is a Salvadorian who has been living in Mexico illegally, working as a janitor at a light bulb factory and living a dismal, solitary existence in a trailer. Both of them are enslaved to their poverty, which prevents them from retiring. After 30 years of servitude, they finally decide to rebel and seize the freedom that life has always denied them.
Tragicomic and incisively humane, this unpretentious yet keenly affective story of two aging individuals who were dealt a bad hand from life is exactly the type of world cinema gem one hopes to find in the Berlinale’s secondary sections. The film’s deadpan absurd humor is a pure delight comparable to that of Yorgos Lanthimos, abounding with a compassion lacking in the Greek director’s work. The two leads are both brilliant, particularly Jesús Padilla, who, as Rafael, has one of those indelible faces able to convey a life’s worth of pathos in a perpetually blank expression. When he finally breaks out in a smile, it provides the most stirring affirmation of his hard-earned victory. The two protagonists’ paths never cross, and it is only through the final shot, which references the film’s opening, that their relationship is finally made explicit through a purely visual bookend, poetically bringing the whole story into a new perspective.