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The title of Macondo, an affecting miniaturist portrait of refugee life, comes from the name of an asylum-seeker settlement on the outskirts of Vienna, where an 11-year-old Chechen boy is torn between childhood recklessness and the premature responsibility of being the man of the family. Sudabeh Mortezai’s first narrative feature is modest in scope yet entirely captivating in the docu-style humanism of its approach, enriched by unsentimental compassion for its characters. Festivals dedicated to discovering new directing talent should be receptive, perhaps yielding limited distribution on the specialized fringe.
Ramasan (Ramasan Minkailov) lives with his mother, Aminat (Kheda Gazieva), and two younger sisters (Rosa Minkailova and Iman Nasuhanowa) in a grim government housing block where Eastern European, Middle Eastern and African immigrants are thrown together in an ethnic blender. The kids go to school and play together in the concrete yard, mostly in separate factions, but some show tentative signs of integration, notably during their soccer games.
Too young when they fled Chechnya to have vivid memories of his father, Ramasan idealizes him as a war hero who died fighting the Russians. He minds his sisters, who exist in their own bubble of giggly innocence, and keeps a doting eye on his mother, who is prone to bouts of melancholia. He speaks better German than she does, so acts as interpreter during welfare meetings in preparation for the family’s asylum hearing. But the failure to produce a death certificate for the boy’s father threatens to cause problems. Likewise his legal scrapes when he falls under the influence of some tough kids who lack Ramasan’s sense of right and wrong.
Mortezai, who moved to Vienna from Tehran at age 12, observes these conflicts and cultural assimilation challenges with an honest eye and a gentle touch. She nudges Klemens Hufnagel’s camera in close to the characters without ever compromising the film’s unembellished social realism, and Oliver Neumann’s graceful editing echoes the ebb and flow of family life in a situation of tenuous stability.
The key dramatic developments come with the arrival at the settlement of Isa (Aslan Elbiev), a somewhat guarded Chechen who knew Ramasan’s father and clearly has his share of troubled experience behind him. He starts helping out the family, becoming a masculine role model even if Ramasan is reluctant to admit that he needs any father figure other than the hazy impression he has formed from photographs and shared stories. When he starts asking Isa about his dad, the stranger’s honest answers don’t gel with Ramasan’s glorified image of him, and when he perceives flickers of mutual attraction between Isa and Aminat during a Chechen community party, the boy turns hostile.
The director’s work with the nonprofessional actors is impeccable, with young Minkailov displaying a seriousness at odds with his tender age. Watchful of everything around him, he seems to be trying on ideas of manhood for size, whether it’s a sober sense of duty toward his family, the beginnings of a spiritual path at the local mosque, or a rebellious streak when he aims to impress the older, wilder local youths. His scenes responding to authority figures and counselors are some of the most touching. Beneath the boy’s outer composure, his vulnerability is never in question.
The involvement of real immigrant communities breathes authenticity into every frame of Macondo, providing what feels like genuine access to lives on the margins of society that remain invisible to most of us. That it also succeeds as intimate personal drama is what makes the modest film so satisfying, and the open-ended note of hope on which it concludes feels just right.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production company: FreibeuterFilm
Cast: Ramasan Minkailov, Aslan Elbiev, Kheda Gazieva, Rosa Minkailova, Iman Nasuhanowa, Askhab Umaev, Hamsat Nasuhanov, Champascha Sadulajev
Director-screenwriter: Sudabeh Mortezai
Producers: Oliver Neumann, Sabine Moser
Director of photography: Klemens Hufnagel
Production designer: Julia Libiseller
Costume designer: Carola Pizzini
Editor: Oliver Neumann
Sales: Films Boutique, Berlin
No rating, 98 minutes
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