'Exil': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Pariah carry.

In Visar Morina's chilly, darkly funny character study, the life of an engineer unravels after a racially motivated incident.

It's the little indignities that get you. Not that the inciting incident in writer-director Visar Morina's very fine Exil is in any way trivial. While walking home from work, Kosovo-born, Germany-residing engineer Xhafer (Mišel Matičević) finds a dead rat hanging on the fence outside his home. The racist implications are undeniable, as is the likelihood of the deceased animal's origins. (Xhafer's office houses a lab where experiments on rats frequently take place.)

There's nonetheless an evident degree to which this affront is "same scheisse, different day" for our protagonist. Patronizing looks and xenophobic slights are so common, so ingrained into the Albanian Xhafer's being, that he accepts them, if not expects them. Also, there's the slight chance that he's freighting these scenarios with more malice than they're worth. What choices are there when no definitive answers are forthcoming about horrific, debasing acts — even the ones you can more speedily force to the rear view? You either steel yourself and push through. Or you go stark raving mad.

Exil quite harrowingly, and often brilliantly, explores the space in-between these psychological extremes. Morina and cinematographer Mateo Cocco put us fully into Xhafer's paranoid perspective by sticking close to him in almost every scene, be it in icy static compositions or sinuously forbidding tracking shots. There are a few notable deviations from this visual template, and when they come, it plays in each case like a fleetingly lunatic form of liberation. In a barbaric world, insanity is bliss.

Matičević is sensational as the lead, keeping his ruggedly handsome features death-mask stoic throughout. This emphasizes the internalized terror of Xhafer's alien (and alienating) existence, while perversely drawing out some of the story's pitch-black humor. The scenes in the nondescript corporate workplace that take up much of the film's first hour have a comedy-of-mortification feel just a few austere steps removed from Curb Your Enthusiasm, though Xhafer is a Larry David figure who constantly bites his tongue rather than mouth off. The terrific German actor Rainer Bock plays Xhafer's primary foil, Urs. He's like Stephen Root in Office Space, though with a more effortless and understated ability to focus his seething contempt. It's only a matter of time before one of these guys ends up on the pointed side of a cafeteria fork.

In its second hour, Exil shifts mostly to the home front, where Xhafer and his PhD-in-training spouse, Nora (an excellent-as-always Sandra Hüller), navigate a slowly dissolving marriage. The interiors are lit like a crypt, and violence feels possible at every moment. Outside of an upsettingly plausible mid-coitus choking incident, however, any brutality tends to take more cerebral forms.

Cruelty begets cruelty. The inhumanity done to Xhafer unleashes his own myopic callousness. This is how the bad guys — or the bad sensibilities, at least — win. Exil doesn't offer answers to its central mystery, nor to its overall thesis about the inhumanity of man, though a subplot about Xhafer's affair with an office cleaning lady (Flonja Kodheli) tends toward Big-Theme overstatement in a way the rest of the movie adeptly avoids. The final shot, at least, is mordantly hilarious in its inconclusiveness, a black-comic ellipsis summing up a soul-crushing human condition that has no end in sight.

Production companies: Komplizen Film, Frakas Productions, Ikonë Studio, WDR, ARTE, VOO, BeTV
Cast: Mišel Matičević, Sandra Hüller, Rainer Bock, Thomas Mraz, Flonja Kodheli
Director: Visar Morina
Producers: Janine Jackowski, Jonas Dornbach, Maren Ade 
Co-producers: Jean-Yves Roubin, Cassandre Warnauts, Yll Uka, Valon Bajgora
Screenwriter: Visar Morina
Director of photography: Matteo Cocco
Editors: Laura Lauzemis, Hansjörg Weißbrich, Visar Morina
Production designer: Christian Goldbeck
Costume design: Gitti Fuchs
Composer: Benedikt Schiefer
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)

Sales: The Match Factory GmbH (info@matchfactory.de)  

121 minutes