'Superworld' ('Superwelt'): Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Close encounter with the Holy Spirit is not wholly convincing

The sophomore feature by Austrian actor turned writer-director Karl Markovics is an offbeat comic fable about a desperate housewife with friends in high places

A household name in his native Austria with a long track record in cinema, television and theater, Karl Markovics is probably best known abroad for starring in Stefan Ruzowitsky's 2007 Oscar-winner The Counterfeiters, and for his recent appearance in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel. In 2011, Markovics made the move into directing with his multiple prize-winning drama Breathing. This week he unveils his second feature in Berlin, a bittersweet comedy about a supermarket worker on a mission from God.

Sharply scripted and visually sumptuous, with extensive use of high aerial shots to suggest heavenly perspective, Superworld opens strongly but suffers from an overlong, muddled second half. Set for domestic release on March 20, it has the kind of quirky Middle European charm, warm comic tone and high production gloss that could draw a discerning audience in non-German-speaking territories, aided by smart marketing and sufficiently positive word of mouth.

Gabi Kovanda (Ulrike Beimpold) is a middle-aged supermarket cashier in the small Austrian city of Bruck. Sharing a cosy suburban nest with her chauvinstic but essentially sympathetic husband Hannes (Rainer Woss) and their hapless son Ronnie (Nikolai Gemel), Gabi's life is deeply ordinary but contented. Indeed, Markovics sets up her midlife hinterland as a picturesque idyll, with blazing cornfields and towering wind farms stretching off to the horizon, all radiant in the midsummer sun.

This golden heartland vista almost feels too perfect, like the start of David Lynch's Blue Velvet, with evil ripening in the shadows. But Markovics supplies a more bizarre deus ex machina than Lynch: not diabolical malice but divine intervention. One day, out of nowhere, Gabi receives a shattering visitation from a mysterious, invisible entity. She becomes distracted and forgetful, setting off on epic solo walks into the countryside, muttering to herself. Her behavior initially suggests a mental breakdown, or even premature dementia. But slowly, teasingly, we discover Gabi is talking to God.

The first hour of Superworld is a delightfully playful mix of dry humor, visual splendor and everyday magic. Beimpold gives a finely judged performance, her face vacant and anxious, but never overplaying Gabi's beatific bafflement. A cartoonish chorus of minor characters, from intrusive neighbors to fainting Jehovah's Witnesses, provide plenty of agreeable levity.

But Markovics proves more adept at setting up his divine dramatic puzzle than he does at resolving it. His script runs short on lucidity and momentum in its second half as Gabi wanders the sunlit Austrian landscape, increasingly angry with a Supreme Being she never summoned in the first place. Her spiritual epiphany ends up as a kind of extreme form of relationship therapy, exposing the hidden faultlines in her marriage. "How often have you been happy?" she asks Hannes bitterly. "How did we settle for so little?"

Markovics remains frustratingly opaque about the theological aspects of his story, and some may find the finale a fuzzy-headed anticlimax. All the same, Superworld is consistently sweet and engaging, a warm-hearted celebration of minor earthly miracles as much as the more heavenly kind.

Production company: Epo-Film
Cast: Ulrike Beimpold, Rainer Woss, Nikolai Gemel, Agelika Strahser, Thomas Mraz
Director, screenwriter: Karl Markovics
Producer: Dieter Pochlatko
Cinematographer: Michael Bindlechner
Editor: Alarich Lenz
Casting: Nicole Schmied
Music: Herbert Tucmandl
Sales company: Epo-Film, Vienna
Unrated, 120 minutes

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