Is family something that we’re just given, or do we also choose it? Directors Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel explore this question—and other issues of identity, performance, and the fuzzy line between the two—in The Shine of Day, a film with a hybrid identity of its own.

The Shine of Day

Covi and Frimmel, whose first fiction feature was Little Girl (La Pivellina, 09), co-wrote the screenplay for The Shine of Day. Their visual aesthetic, infused with the legacy of neorealism, tends toward a rugged look. Instead of delighting in the surfaces of people and landscapes, the filmmakers probe the social and psychological realities that simmer beneath and occasionally bubble up to the surface. Theirs is an unvarnished working-class world of industrial neighborhoods, cramped apartments, run-down bars and harbors in decline, and many of the faces here are creased with lines of age and worry. But where it matters most, things are not so bleak: these characters care about each other.

Covi and Frimmel (both of whom have a background in photography) tend to cast people who don’t usually act in films to play themselves, and ask them to improvise much of their dialogue. Real-life circus veteran Walter Saabel—bear-fighter, knife-thrower, erstwhile acrobat—has been a mainstay of the Covi-Frimmel oeuvre since Babooska (05), and returns in The Shine of Day as an aging, wandering raconteur with a tender heart. Early in the film, Walter meets his grown nephew Philipp, played by the established Austrian stage actor Philipp Hochmair. Philipp is artistic, excitable, vain, and solitary—at one point he admits that he doesn’t have time for friends. At first he’s ambivalent about the sudden intrusion of his long-lost black-sheep uncle. But through their discussions of art and life, they develop affection for each other and realize their bonds go deeper than blood; they’re both lone-wolfs with careers as performers who yearn for total freedom. Walter enters ever deeper into Philipp’s world, to the point that he becomes a permanent fixture on the latter’s couch.

The Shine of Day

In place of a finely wrought dramatic storyline, Shine invites us to watch the birth of a warm familial bond between a grown man and his uncle, with all the pleasures, strains and negotiations that come with it. The filmmakers present stirring little moments between the two, as when they cram into a photo booth to take a picture together or Philipp shares an embarrassing flub from a premiere. All the while, there’s the lingering question of why Walter suddenly arrived at his nephew’s door in the first place. But when a pair of neglected children enters the film, that question recedes as Walter finds himself increasingly drawn into their orbit and renewed by the sense of purpose they give him.

As with the docufiction Little Girl, Covi and Frimmel give us characters on the fringe of society, performers who inhabit different roles and come together across generations to build ersatz families. As these individuals struggle through their own lives, they cross paths with young innocents in need, and rise to meet an ethical call that pulls them back to earth and fills their lives with meaning, albeit perhaps only for a time. These films prod us to question the distinction between performance and identity. They can seem grim and slow and unfocused at times, maybe even contaminated by a deep malaise, but to the patient viewer they offer humanist stories with glimmers of hope and redemption.