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Submarino -- Film Review

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BERLIN -- "Oh, brother!" is likely to be most people's reaction to "Submarino," an excessively dour Danish tale of two siblings and their dysfunctional, tragedy-marbled lives.

Optimistically touted in certain quarters as a comeback for director/co-writer Thomas Vinterberg -- still best known for 1998's superb and seminal "The Celebration" -- the picture would surely struggle for international exposure if hailing from a lesser-known source. As things stand, it will need a prize or two from the ever-unpredictable Berlinale jury if it's to make a significantly greater splash than Vinterberg's 2007 "When a Man Comes Home," which was barely shown outside his homeland.

The script -- co-written by Tobias Lindholm (who co-wrote and co-directed the recent Danish release "R," a far superior drama of damaged masculinity) -- is based on an acclaimed novel by Jonas T. Bengtsson, which presumably includes within its pages an explanation of the picture's enigmatic title. According to the press notes, submarino is a form of torture involving simulated drowning, but there's no mention of this in the movie. Vinterberg also withholds the name of one of his two main protagonists, who's listed in the end credits only as 'Martin's Father' (and is played by Peter Plaugborg.) Such gimmicky structural touches give what should be grittily realistic proceedings a distracting and cumulatively counterproductive air of arch self-consciousness.
 

The chosen subject matter is so very dark and serious that it requires particularly sensitive handling, which Vinterberg only intermittently is able to provide. At times, "Submarino" teeters on the brink of parody, as mishap after dire mishap befalls the beefy, laconic Nick (Jakob Cedegren) and his hollow-eyed younger brother. Neither is ever able to recover from a traumatic event which occurred in their early teens -- shown in an ethereal prologue -- that resulted in the death of their baby brother, and for which both feel to some extent responsible.

Twenty years later, Nick is an ex-con alcoholic with a violent temper; his brother, a junkie whose extreme pallor and hollow eyes often make him look like a refugee from a George Romero set. "Little brother" has been left a single parent following the road-accident death of his wife three years before, and he struggles to juggle his addiction and the responsibility of looking after little Martin (Kjaerulff.) The death of the siblings' alcoholic mother brings them together, briefly, after years of estrangement but dire circumstances soon intervene to keep them apart.

The first 45 minutes of "Submarino" are devoted to Nick, and represent by far the most effective part of the movie mainly thanks to Cedergren's minimalist but highly effective work as an outsize bruiser whose forbiddingly tough exterior (bristling beard, tattooed muscles) hides all manner of insecurities, regrets and gnawing demons. The time-frame then rolls back a few weeks as little brother takes center stage, before a curtailed final act in which the duo meet again (sort of) in jail. By this stage, only the most indulgent of audiences will be still be emotionally invested in a chronicle of despair that's almost entirely unleavened by humor or changes of mood or pace. They should really have called it "Monotono."

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival -- in competition

Production company: Nimbus, Hvidovre, Denmark
Cast: Jakob Cedergren, Peter Plaugborg, Patricia Schumann, Gustav Fischer Kjaerulff, Morten Rose
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Screenwriters: Tobias Lindholm and Thomas Vinterberg
Producer: Morten Kaufmann
Executive producers: Brigitte Hald, Bo Ehrhardt
Director of photography: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Production designer: Torben Stig Nielsen
Music: Thomas Blachmann
Costume designer: Margarethe Rasmusssen
Editors: Valdis Oskarsdottir, Andri Stein Gudmundsson
Sales: Match Factory, Cologne
No rating, 111 minutes