Given the front-loaded nature of the 2014 Berlin Film Festival, as the second weekend approached, I’d started to despair of finding anything remarkable in the remaining competition line-up. And then along came “Macondo” the fiction feature debut from Iranian director Sudabeh Mortezai, and a wonderfully engaging, absorbing coming of age/culture clash tale set in a Chechen refugee community in Austria. Knowing shamefully little of Chechen culture beforehand, the film’s lived-in feel exerted its own pull, with Mortezai, who spent time in Austria but is herself a newcomer to this particular milieu, expertly finding a balance between her (and our) outsider perspective, and the unquestionable authenticity of the actors and the environment. But beyond the exercise in cultural understanding (or in the case of some facets of Chechen tradition, especially as regards treatment of women, condemnation) “Macondo” is marked out by an absolutely astonishing performance from its young, effortlessly natural lead Ramasan Minkailov. Bilingual in German and Chechen, as is his character, Minkailov anchors the film completely, unselfconsciously underplaying even the most melodramatic moments. “Macondo” may not reinvent the wheel of the culturally sensitive human drama so beloved of festival selection committees, but it delivers it with an emotional confidence that is much, much rarer.
The Macondo of the title is the name of a small community of refugees and asylum seekers from Chechnya that exists on the outskirts of Vienna. While the assimilation of this small population is ultimately the stated aim of the Austrian authorities, the language, customs, religion and family dynamics have all been imported wholesale from Chechnya, making Macondo something of a domain unto itself. It’s here that Ramasan, his mother and two younger sisters live, in a small flat whose living room is dominated by a kind of shrine to Ramasan’s father, who died in the war a “hero,” as Ramasan stubbornly insists. The boy, at eleven, is the “man” of the house, taking care of his sisters while his mother works, attending a local school and, as is the way of children of that age, taking naturally to German as his second language to the point that he often goes along as an interpreter to meetings between his mother and the authorities determining the family’s status. With uncertainty as to their future hovering, Ramasan tentatively befriends Isa, a world-weary new arrival who claims to have known his father in the war. But as soon as he suspects Isa is taking a romantic interest in his mother, Ramasan turns on him, choosing instead to spend time with some local Austrian boys who, without a family’s asylum to jeopardize, tempt Ramasan into illegality.
The plot arc is perhaps not the most original, which somehow makes it all the more impressive that it is here rendered so fresh. Formally, the film feels very much in the tradition of latter-day Iranian new-wave humanism, but tempered with a slightly more detached tone (Mortezai’s dynamic but controlled camerawork—kudos to cinematographer Klemens Hufnagel—often favors behind-the-subject shots, following Ramasan as he stomps through the scrubby forest/dumping ground near the flats, or crosses the busy, noisy playground to bring his sisters home). It’s this restraint, as well as her clear faith in her young star to deliver the goods without too much manipulative cutting-to-close-up, that allows the film to sell some of the more overtly on-the nose moments. At one point, while Ramasan’s classmates all draw pictures of home represented by houses and high streets (one of them even has drawn in a Zara store, which I found oddly hilarious), he himself draws a picture of a tank; or that at another he literalizes his inner struggle by actually switching sides in a regular local football game. And yet even these moments, unsubtle though they are, are delivered with nuance and absolute conviction by filmmaker and star.
And it’s not just Minkailov’s performance we should be calling out. Wholly cast from what we can only imagine, due to constraints of language and geography, can’t have been a huge pool of non-professional Chechen actors, Mortezai clearly has a terrific eye for thespian talent. Both Kheda Gazieva as Aminat, Ramasan’s still beautiful but exhausted-looking mother and Aslan Elbiev as the ambivalent, mysterious Isa, who was wounded in the conflict (the actor really is missing some fingers which gives the character’s dexterity as a handyman an added prurient fascination) are excellent, and the supporting cast of local neighbors, Austrian police officers, social workers and schoolchildren are perfectly cast too.
So at its heart is the compelling story of one boy finding his way to becoming a man, and making the kind of moral decisions that will dictate the kind of man he will be. And invested as we are in him, we feel every step on this journey deeply, especially because in his case the issues are heightened–under Austrian law, and to outsiders in general, Ramasan is a child, but to the Chechen mindset he is practically a man, particularly as he’s the only surviving male in his family. These aspects of Chechen tradition and world view are fascinating, and never feel shoehorned in, always serving a narrative purpose–a wedding with traditional dancing, for example, is where Ramasan becomes truly alarmed at the burgeoning closeness of Isa and his mother. And when in her language class Aminat tells, in halting German and to the understanding nods of the other Chechen women, of how Ramasan’s father, as is accepted practice in her home country, essentially “claimed” her, and she had to comply fearing a family feud otherwise, it’s the fact that the story is accidentally overheard by Ramasan that further stirs up the stew of contradictory emotions toward his father, his father figure, and his own encroaching manhood, that is brewing inside him. Simplistically put “Will Ramasan grow up to be a good man or a bad man?” is the question that hangs in the balance throughout “Macondo,” and one that some superb performances, authentic context and impressive filmmaking make us care deeply to see answered. And yet film’s deep currents actually guide us away from this simplicity, to a conclusion that instead sings a bittersweet song that is both far more truthful and far more compromised: he is going to be neither. He is going to be both. [B+]