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Domestic desires meet rocky realities in German writer-director Jan Zabeil’s sophomore feature Three Peaks (Drei Zinnen), a family-focused fable which steadily unfolds amid Italy’s spectacular Dolomites mountain range. Winner of the Piazza Grande prize when world premiering at Locarno, this is a demanding and fitfully rewarding film which focuses minutely on the shifting relationships between its three protagonists.
The presence of Berenice Bejo will open further doors in the wake of the Germany-Italy co-production’s upcoming international bow in Toronto, although the Argentinian-French actress is offscreen for much of the running time as co-stars Alexander Fehling and young Arian Montgomery take center stage. Careful handling and further awards attention will probably be needed if festival circuit exposure is to yield theatrical distribution. For all its quiet strengths and certain passing similarities to Ruben Ostlund’s international breakthrough Force Majeure, the picture proceeds too often as a glacier-paced exercise, striving to breathe the rarefied air of challenging artistic altitudes.
Zabeil showed even greater disregard for conventional narrative momentum in his feature debut, 2011’s The River Used to Be a Man, a semi-improvised, self-consciously torpid affair which nevertheless recouped most of its tiny budget when triumphing in San Sebastian’s lucrative New Directors competition. The strapping, handsome, red-headed Fehling played a fictionalized version of himself, a city-dwelling German actor who gets hopelessly lost in the watery wilds of rural Botswana. Working once more with Fehling, Zabeil further develops his earlier theme of how men define themselves and their masculinity in extreme situations and wilderness conditions.
This time his location is mountainous, chilly, European terrain, the classic zone of the Romantic sublime. And Fehling’s Aaron is much more of a self-reliant, log-chopping outdoorsman type. A very capable linguist — everyone here shifts easily between French, German and English — a skilled musician and a resourceful mountaineer, Aaron appears to be an ideal father figure for Tristan (Montgomery), the 7-year-old son of his girlfriend Lea (Bejo) from a previous relationship.
The trio are first glimpsed frolicking at some busy Italian lakeside resort, before taking themselves off to the seclusion of a luxuriously appointed cabin/chalet in the southern Alps. Here Aaron and Lea plan to conceive their own first child, notwithstanding the complication of lively Tristan’s distracting presence under the same roof. After two years, Aaron and Tristan have evolved a friendly relationship now hovering on the edge of something more significant — the kid even calls him “Papa” at one stage. But certain unresolved, unspoken tensions remain. When Aaron impetuously takes Tristan up into the rugged, rubbly terrain for an all-day bonding experience, events take unpredictable and potentially catastrophic turns as sunny day closes mistily down into chilly darkness.
Captured in pin-sharp digital widescreen by cinematographer Axel Schneppat via a palette of grays and blues, the awe-inspiring backdrop of the Alto Adige region effectively emphasizes the fragility of the tiny humans who traverse its challenges. The Three Peaks of the title are a real landmark which gives their name to the surrounding area; in the film, the towering rock formations are spoken about as symbolizing a mother, father and child. Flesh and blood people, of course, are infinitely more volatile and emotional.
Having spent an hour in a mode of patient observation, Zabeil careens into dramatic and even melodramatic territory for the final third; there’s even a near-fatal plunge into a frozen lake that plays out only slightly less awkwardly than a similar development in Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone. Fehling and especially Montgomery cope admirably with the script’s various demands, however; the young son of Oscar-winning Irish animator Tyron Montgomery handles dialogue with notably precocious aplomb in his feature debut.
Production companies: Rohfilm Productions, Echo Film, SWR
Cast: Alexander Fehling, Arian Montgomery, Berenice Bejo
Director-screenwriter: Jan Zabeil
Producers: Benny Drechsel, Andreas Pichler, Philipp Moravetz
Cinematographer: Axel Schneppat
Production designer: Michael Randel
Costume designer: Cinzia Cioffi
Editor: Florian Miosge
Casting director: Tanja Schuh
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (competition)
Sales: The Match Factory (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In English, French and German
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