First Cousin Once Removed: IDFA Review

First Cousin Once Removed - H 2012

First Cousin Once Removed - H 2012

Brisk but piercing analysis of mental decay's grim ravages shows that documentary can match fictional treatments of terminal illness.

New York director Alan Berliner's profile of his relative's struggles with Alzheimer's Disease won top honors at Amsterdam's documentary festival.

Winner of the top prize at Amsterdam's IDFA documentary festival, Alan Berliner's First Cousin Once Removed vividly examines poet/translator Edwin Honig's struggle with Alzheimer's Disease over a five-year period. This HBO production, set for broadcast next year, premiered at the New York Film Festival in October. Its success at Holland's high-profile event will doubtless pave the way for numerous further festival bookings and considerable small-screen exposure, even if art house play may prove elusive.

That said, its arrival is certainly timely, coming so soon after high-profile fictional examinations of how seniors cope with incapacitating conditions, including Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or laureate Amour and Phyllida Lloyd's The Iron Lady. A closer parallel, however, is with another Academy Award winner: Iris (2001), Richard Hare's biopic about novelist-philosopher Iris Murdoch and her experiences with Alzheimer's. Like Murdoch, Honig was in his prime a high-profile literary eminence, a man of letters who enjoyed international acclaim especially in Spain and Portugal. Archive footage, photographs and written materials from the academic's golden years provide context for the one-on-one interviews which form the bulk of the picture's brisk running-time -- the latter presented as chronologically jumbled fragments with results that are often poignantly and piercingly ironic.

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Having previously profiled his enigmatic grandfather in Intimate Stranger (1991), and chronicled his own relationship with his father in Nobody's Business (1996), Berliner now probes a more distant branch of the family tree -- he describes regarding Honig as his "mentor" as much as his relative. His self-edited collage reveals a once-voluble man of words slowly fading into a fog of forgetfulness that includes only increasingly brief spells of articulate lucidity amid a limbo of sub-verbal and non-verbal communication.

The ethics of so publicly displaying an often-hapless individual in this way are touched upon early on, when Edwin's sister Lila speaks disapprovingly of Berliner filming the octogenarian in his "compromised" state. But there's no mistaking the conscientiousness with which Berliner goes about the task of doing justice to Edwin's fascinatingly complex, sometimes prickly character, and he always steers a course that avoids the potential pitfalls of exploitation or tactlessness.

Essentially tragic subject matter is tackled with unsentimental directness, with proceedings consistently enlivened by editing techniques inspired by the typewriters that were so prominent among the tools of Edwin's trade. Indeed, not since Dario Marianelli's Oscar-winning music for Atonement have that machine's bygone noises -- the clacking of keys, the sharp ping of the carriage-return bell -- been so wittily integrated into a soundtrack, rendering superfluous the occasional detours into an over-conventional, tinkling piano score.

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Berliner's selection of extensive, eclectic visual material -- all presented in boxy TV-style Academy ratio -- is similarly bold and lively, featuring several interludes whose blizzard-like bombardment of imagery mirrors the confusion in Edwin's brain as his (significantly younger) cousin gently probes the senior citizen's clouded byways of memory. Watching Edwin stumbling among the ruins of comprehension and expression, sometimes in a fury of frustration, is a humbling and often harrowing experience. But it's a worthwhile one, as Berliner crafts a quietly touching and illuminating memento mori from the steady dying of an intellectual light.

Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Competition), Nov. 25

Production companies: Experiments In Time, HBO Enterprises, Light and Motion

Director/Screenwriter: Alan Berliner

Producers: Alan Berliner, Lisa Heller

Co-producer: Shari Spiegel

Executive producer: Sheila Nevins

Director of photography: Ian Vollmer

Music: Miranda Hentoff

Sales agent: HBO Enterprises, New York

No MPAA rating, 79 minutes