An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker
Hopes were high for Wednesday’s Competition premiere of An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker by Danis Tanovic, the Bosnian director whose No Man’s Land won a slew of awards in 2001, including the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. While an admirable project featuring a Roma family reenacting actual events from their recent past, the film’s deliberate restraint is miscalculated, engendering a bland and at times overly conventional portrait that fails to successfully convey the absolute wretchedness of the Roma situation.
When Nazif’s wife Senada suffers a miscarriage, the price of the surgery necessary to save her life is far too high for a family whose only income comes from the collection and sale of scrap metal from garbage dumps. Employing the shaky and oppressive camerawork that has become synonymous with gritty social realism—after A Long and Happy Life and Child’s Pose, it’s the third film to use this aesthetic in this year’s Competition alone—the film depicts Nazif’s race against time as he seeks a way to acquire the means for Senada’s surgery. As implied by the film’s title, this occurrence is far from exceptional for the family—and, by extension, for all Roma people—whose existence is defined by such tribulations. Even so, the characters’ perpetually impassive demeanor as they are informed of the death of their unborn child or when Senada is given what essentially amounts to a death sentence is so extreme, it beggars belief and drains the intended impact. This is not helped by a lack of subtlety in other areas, such as repeatedly portraying Senada’s preparation of delicious-looking food as an obvious device to emphasize their humanity or the use of unnecessary lines such as, “Dear God, why do you make poor people suffer?” Considering the Roma’s persisting status as pariahs and the urgency of generating the constructive dialogue to which this film aspires, it’s a true disappointment that it is unable to fulfill its noble intentions.
With the Competition close to wrapping up, the definite critical favorite thus far is Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria, which many are touting as the most likely to snatch the Golden Bear. This Chilean film is indeed a marvel, addressing its refreshingly atypical topic—the titular heroine’s coming to terms with singledom at the cusp of old age—with remarkable sensitivity.
The film’s accomplishment is inseparable from Paulina García’s performance in the lead role, which is so splendidly enchanting, it manages to stand out in a Competition that has been a veritable treasure trove of female acting talent. Present in every scene, Gloria is a 58-year-old who’s been divorced for over a decade. As her children have grown up and are now largely preoccupied with their own adult lives, Gloria spends her evenings at singles’ nights looking for affection (and maybe something more). Her desires materialize in Rodolfo, a recent divorcee some years her senior. Their personalities click, his interest appears genuine, and gradually Gloria finds herself picturing a life with him. Rodolfo’s enduring devotion to his children and ex-wife, from whom he keeps his new relationship secret, is a cause for continuous dispute and as it becomes increasingly clear that Rodolfo is not going to heed her entreat that he “grow a pair” anytime soon, Gloria comes to realize that regardless of the stage of one’s life, one is always better off alone than in bad company.
The film is peppered with delightful humor, such as Gloria’s attending a cuddle party or experimenting with pot for the first time, and its depiction of sexuality is as tactful and affecting as it is frank (one sex scene involves the removal of a girdle as part of the foreplay). Despite its irresistible charm, it is possible that this coming-of-old-age story may not prove ambitious enough to win the festival’s top prize. On a formal level, it plays it entirely safe, banking everything on the strength of its narrative and central performance. In terms of what it sets out to achieve, however, it hits every note exactly right and would deserve to win simply on the basis of the exposure it would gain, which it amply deserves.