'Tonio': Film Review

Tonio - Still 1 -H 2016
Courtesy of NL Film/September Film
An ambitious new feature from Oscar-nominated van der Oest.

The latest film from Dutch director Paula van der Oest, an adaptation of a best-seller about a couple dealing with the unexpected death of their 21-year-old son, is the Netherlands' foreign-language Oscar submission this year.

An Amsterdam novelist and his wife try to come to terms with the loss of their student-age son in the drama Tonio, based on the autobiographical “requiem novel” from one of the Netherlands’s most acclaimed writers, A.F.Th. van der Heijden. Though by no means perfect — like the mourning process it depicts, it too is sometimes messy and incoherent — this is a frequently intense and stirring drama that finds acclaimed Dutch director Paula van der Oest working far outside her comfort zone of tidy, chronologically told stories. That said, the film’s fragmented narrative and emotional seesaw structure is not only the movie’s greatest asset but also, occasionally, something of a liability.

Seeing van der Oest’s track record with the Academy Awards — her 2002 film Zus & Zo was nominated and her 2014 film Accused made the shortlist — it should come as no surprise that Tonio was selected as the Dutch submission in the foreign-language Oscar race. After a tiny, one-week qualifying run late September, it was released locally Oct. 13 to solid numbers, with the fact attendance was down only 10 percent in its second week suggesting this drama could have legs. It should appeal to festivals and broadcasters.

Adri (Pierre Bokma) is a middle-aged and meticulously organized novelist who needs to get his 10 pages done every day in his office in a fancy canal house in the center of the Dutch capital. At the start of the film, on a sunny Sunday morning, however, he’s in bed, reading the papers with the family’s cat lounging nearby. It’s his wife, Mirjam (Rifka Lodeizen), busy with breakfast in the kitchen, who opens the door when two police offers come with bad news: Tonio (Chris Peters), their 21-year-old son who lives with some student buddies elsewhere in the city, has been in a very bad accident when biking home in the early hours of the morning. 

Tonio, with his dark mane of unkempt curls, can be seen in flashbacks and something probably best called dream sequences. Indeed, the young man himself appears to have been something of a dreamer who hadn’t quite figured his life out life goals out just yet. When, in one of the numerous flashbacks, Tonio tries to explain to his father over dinner in an Amsterdam café that, instead of photography, which he’s studying, he might be interested in film instead, Adri doesn’t take it well and raises his voice. In hindsight, however, this scene simply makes the early loss of a young man who hadn’t even really had the opportunity to find his calling and what he’s good at simply a lot more tragic.

Small details that prompt larger realizations such as these pop up continuously in screenwriter Hugo Heinen’s adaptation. Some of the grieving parents’ obsessions and worries might at first come off as a little morbid or inappropriate, like when Adri and Mirjam confess to each other that they want to know whether their son at least managed to have sex with the mysterious girl he started seeing just before he died. But particulars such as these are always tied to the parents’ desire for a confirmation that their little boy at least got to live his short life to the fullest.  

Van der Oest has always been good with actors and Bokma (Sleeping Sickness) and Lodeizen (Can Go Through Skin) are both in fine form here, even if Lodeizen’s Mirjam could have been developed a bit more; when we see her visiting her ailing father (Henri Garcin, from Truffaut’s The Woman Next Door), it comes as something of a shock to realize she’s not just Adri’s wife and Tonio’s mother. And newcomer Peters, in the title but also clearly the supporting role, finds just the right balance between likability and a cultivated sense of naiveté and mystery.

Actors who like to act big are often in their element with mourning characters since they can be prone to histrionics and there is certainly a little of that here, especially when both parents momentarily take to the bottle. But in general, van der Oest and her cast keep things relatively subdued, with the intricate editing plumbing the depths of the characters’ memories and feelings much more than any grandstanding in front of the camera.  

Expert cutter Sander Vos has been working with van der Oest for years, including on her Oscar nominee Zus & Zo from 15 years ago. But their collaborations have tended to be pretty straightforward, with their power often derived from the writing and acting. But Vos also has worked on more sophisticated narratives, notably honing his skills as master (cross-)cutter on the often at least bipartite works of local art house maverick David Verbeek (Full Contact, R U There?).

Vos infuses something of that arthouse daring into what could have otherwise been a very familiar TV-movie-of-the-week story, like when he cuts from Adri and Mirjam in a cab to the hospital that fateful Sunday morning to the same couple 21 years earlier, when they were also huddled together in the back of a car on the way to the hospital but now with Mirjam in labor. By placing these moments of life and death together, Vos, Heinen and van der Oest at once manage to evoke the book’s ruminative, memory-filled prose while also, because of the gigantic ellipsis back into time, suggesting something about the loss or even erasure of an entire life in the blink of an eye.

Structurally, the film’s composed of an associative chain of emotional highs and lows as the parents go back and forth between despair and utter disbelief on the one hand and hesitant acceptance or at least gratefulness for having had Tonio in their lives on the other. These juxtapositions suggest how grief is anything but static and at their most effective, the contrasts, like in the cab sequence, reveal larger truths. But it remains a risky way to structure a 100-minute film and especially in the last act, in which Adri starts projecting himself into the idea he’s pieced together of his son’s life without his parents, this starts to yield less new insights and Tonio becomes more repetitive and predictable. The film also doesn’t quite dare to suggest how Adri’s writing process of what would become the book that inspired this film was part of his healing (Dutch audiences familiar with van der Heijden and his work will be able to pick up on a few more nuances than international audiences but the film still never seems to explicitly want to address this).

Cinematographer Guido van Gennep and production designer Harry Ammerlaan further help audiences make sense of the constant back-and-forth between various timelines.

Production companies: NL Film, NTR, Nanook Entertainment
Cast: Pierre Bokma, Rifka Lodeizen, Chris Peters, Stefanie van Leersum, Beppie Melissen, Henri Garcin, Pauline Greidanus, Marieke Giebels, Tim Somer, Tarik Moree
Director: Paula van der Oest
Screenplay: Hugo Heinen, based on the book by A.F.Th. van der Heijden
Producers: Alain de Levita, Sytze van der Laan
Director of photography: Guido van Gennep
Production designer: Harry Ammerlaan
Costume designer: Lotte Noordermeer
Editor: Sander Vos
Music: Fons Merkies
Casting: Kemna
Sales: Dutch Features

Not rated, 100 minutes