'The Eremites' ('Die Einsiedler'): Film Review | Venice 2016

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
The hills are alive with good stories.

The debut feature from Italian director Ronny Trocker is set in German-speaking South Tyrol and stars Austrian actor Andreas Lust ('The Robber,' 'Revanche').

The life of a thirtysomething man from South Tyrol, a tiny, German-speaking fleck in northern Italy, is a tough balancing act between his job and potential sweetheart in the valley and his aging parents’ farm high up in the Alps in the beautifully crafted The Eremites (Die Einsiedler). Though none of the characters are big talkers, this small arthouse gem manages to explore a host of complex issues — including motherly love and filial loyalty and mechanized modernity as opposed to age-old (and dying out) farming methods — by subtly juxtaposing them.

Perhaps rather unexpectedly, this is not only the first feature from Italian director Ronny Trocker, himself a German speaker from South Tyrol, but also the best Italian film screening in Venice this year (where, rather shockingly, it was not in competition). That said, it will probably play better in German-speaking countries (which tend to have more affinity with Alpine narratives) than at home.

Albert (Austrian actor Andreas Lust, The Robber) works in a marble quarry, where manual shoveling sometimes complements the work of gigantic machines. Though there are talks of possible layoffs, Albert is such a diligent worker that his boss (German veteran actor Hans Peter Hallwachs) seems very happy to have him. The sturdy, quiet giant of man occasionally goes for a beer with his co-workers and sometimes hangs out with a colleague, Gruber (Hannes Perkmann, a local actor) but overall, the life of the aloof farmers’ son is very peaceful.

In that sense, at least, his life looks like that of his aging parents, Marianne (Ingrid Burkhard, also Austrian) and Rudl (Peter Mitterrutzner, another local), who have a farm high up a mountain that can only be reached by a private, rickety old cable car that has a tendency to break down. They live in extreme isolation, in a crumbling home that provides only minimal comfort — firewood seems to be the only source of warmth in winter — and their farm equipment, too, has seen better days. (The camerawork and production design emphasize the squalor more than the majestic landscapes.)

There’s a clear sense that this is a way of life that’s dying out and that Marianne, a tough woman who doesn’t waste words — if she speaks at all — has decided she’ll have to be the last one left standing at the farm. When her fragile husband, just back from the hospital, unexpectedly falls to his death, she simply digs a hole on their property and buries Rudl there. She also buries the news of death: When Albert comes around during the weekend, hoping to help Dad repair the roof that killed him, she has set his plate at the table but, tellingly, doesn’t wait to start eating or leave him anything when taking seconds. When her son enumerates that day’s odd coincidences related to his father’s absence, she simply says: “If you already know, why are you asking?”

Especially for the first 30 or so minutes, the audience needs to work hard to piece together a sense of who the story is about, what these people’s lives look like and what their problems might be. The director, who wrote the screenplay with Rolando Grumt Suarez, doesn’t like to spell everything out, trusting the viewers to slowly piece together an idea of the different kinds of lives of the two generations of this South Tyrol family. Bits of the characters’ backstory, such as the fate of Albert’s late siblings, slip out almost unnoticed at various moments in the narrative, make it necessary for audiences to occasionally backtrack slightly and adjust their understanding of the characters and their relationships, creating a richer and fuller picture each time.

This kind of attentive viewing is extremely rewarding, as it keeps the audience fully engaged and prepares them to also pick up on Trocker’s subtle metaphors. The fact Albert works in a quarry, for example, seems significant; not only is he down in the valley working with modern equipment but the workers are also literally destroying the mountains on which his family must have been farming for generations. The film thus suggests that all progress comes at very steep price: the destruction of not only the old ways but mighty nature itself.

Because there is not all that much meaningful dialogue, Trocker has to rely on other things to tell his story, starting with the unaffected work of the small cast, which is lyrical in the most basic, down-to-earth sense of the word. When Albert has an almost flirty conversation with the Hungarian woman (Orsi Toth) working at the cafeteria, for example, there's a clear sense that despite his age, he's not all that experienced with women. The way Lust plays the encounter is just right, suggesting that it is exactly Albert's maladroitness that makes him attractive. 

Most of the technical contributions are used to heighten contrasts within the story, which then reveal meaning. The film’s carefully paced editing cuts back and forth between Albert in the valley and his parents much higher up and creates drama by suggesting that the son feels he has to follow in the family’s footsteps because tradition demands it but that both his strong mother and perhaps even progress itself make that very unlikely.

The work of Austrian cinematographer Klemens Hufnagl (Macondo) is key in establishing the contrasts between Albert’s workplace — with its light-colored marble inside the mountain and its neon-lit, clinical-looking showers and cafeteria — and the farm, which is all dark mud and organic decay. The beautifully diffuse white light gives a remarkable intensity to the few splashes of color in both places. A suitably minimalist score, which is closer to a kind of noisy drone than anything melodic, helps create a sense of intensity in certain scenes while its absence heightens the silences at other crucial intervals. If an ancient way of life dies out but nobody is around to hear it, has it really died out? 

Production companies: Zischlermann Filmproduktion, BLS Alto Adige, Golden Girls Filmproduction, Echo Film

Cast: Ingrid Burkhard, Andreas Lust, Orsi Toth, Hannes Perkmann, Peter Mitterrutzner, Georg Kaser, Franz Fulterer, Florian Eisner, Johann Nikolussi, Christoph Griesser, Anton Algrang, Hans Peter Hallwachs

Director: Ronny Trocker

Screenplay: Ronny Trocker, Rolando Grumt Suarez

Producers: Susanne Mann, Paul Zischler

Director of photography: Klemens Hufnagl

Production designer: Stefan Oppenlaender

Costume designer: Nastassja Kinspergher

Editor: Julia Drack

Sales: Cercamon World Sales

 

No rating, 110 minutes

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