‘Between Sisters’: True/False Review

Between Sisters still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Clin d'oeil Films, Oneworld DocuMakers
Intimate specifics, universal emotions.

An Italian filmmaker chronicles his mother’s attempts to unravel a family secret.

After making a film in Zimbabwe, Italian documentarian Manu Gerosa (Lion Souls) aims his lens much closer to home for Between Sisters, which took its stateside bow at the True/False festival. The subjects of the involving film are his mother and aunt, both residents of the mountain-rimmed town of Rovereto in northern Italy, one of them doggedly guarding a family secret. A deceptively narrow focus gives way to affecting observations about aging, familial bonds and repressive traditions that shaped generations. 

Over the course of a year, Gerosa gathers moments of sharp intimacy as his mother, Ornella, 68, tries to draw long-buried truths from her obstinate and increasingly forgetful older sibling. His personal stake in their conversations and standoffs is evident (he appears onscreen at one point to soothe his irritable elderly aunt), but it never tips the film into the realm of self-reflection. The relationship between Ornella and Teresa — both strong personalities, in strikingly different ways — is what matters here, and it pulses through every frame. 

With a 21-year age difference between them, that relationship has taken on a caretaker-patient aspect. At almost 90, Teresa is by no means sickly or frail, but she’s increasingly given to bouts of disorientation and needs day-to-day guidance. A former schoolteacher who never married but enjoyed romantic involvements, often with younger men, she maintains a certain vanity about her fading beauty. Though she castigates her sister for dating, she can be girlishly flirty when she chooses. 

The well-selected opening sequence encapsulates the women’s bond vividly: Ornella colors her kvetching sister’s hair and cooks a meal for her, cheerfully resilient but also exasperated that Teresa isn’t more appreciative. In fact, the chief way that Teresa acknowledges her dependence on Ornella is through accusatory guilt-tripping that points up her own lifelong dedication to their family. 

The nature of that dedication is at the heart of the secrets that Ornella is determined to uncover, even as she fears what she’ll find out. Gerosa captures her gentle but forthright attempts to draw out Teresa. “We have never shared deep intimacies,” she tells her sister with deep emotion, only to be met with the implacable belief that skeletons belong locked away. 

Other than a snippet of home movies and glimpses of a few framed photos that reveal Teresa in her youthful bloom, Gerosa wisely keeps the film rooted in the present tense, closely observing the emotions that play across the sisters’ faces. Their sparring can be playful or strained, whether during daily visits or on summer trips to the Adriatic coast, where — in a scene that Seinfeld fans will appreciate — Ornella anxiously counts how many days of holiday are left before she can return home. 

For Ornella, thinking is “the sap of life”; for the often comically belligerent Teresa, it’s something to be avoided at all costs. But the director catches subtle shifts in the sisters’ dance of persistence and resistance, and how it's affected by their awareness of the camera — performance, in essence, eliciting truth. Between Sisters is no simplistic celebration of that truth. It embraces the messiness and acknowledges the suffering. Ornella zeros in on the hidden-in-plain-sight secret with the certainty that bringing it into the light can only set them both free, but she’s not quite prepared for the results.

Production companies: Clin d'oeil Films, Oneworld DocuMakers
Director-screenwriter: Manu Gerosa
Producers: Hanne Phlypo, Antoine Vermeesch
Camera: Manu GerosaSalva Munoz, Federico Scienza
Editors: Alejandro de la Fuente, Jan Decoster
Composer: Jean-Philippe Collard-Neven
Sales: Slingshot Films

Not rated, 78 minutes