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Katrin Gebbe Pelican Blood Review

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Pelican Blood | 2019 Toronto Intl. Film Festival Review

Pelican Blood | 2019 Toronto Intl. Film Festival Review

Mother May I Sleep with Martyr?: Gebbe Dresses in Distress with Maternal Drama

It’s always lamentable to find a charismatic actor stymied by a poorly realized narrative, especially when their performance has the power to elevate a film’s faultier foundations. Such is the case with the effervescent Nina Hoss, one of German cinema’s most revered contemporary performers and arguably the visual forefront of the Berlin School thanks to her collaborations with Christian Petzold and Thomas Arslan. She headlines the sophomore feature from Katrin Gebbe in Pelican Blood, a film thematically similar to her grueling 2013 debut Nothing Bad Can Happen (review), as both relish in excessive, overwrought narrative ploys from lead characters who are gluttons for pain and suffering. Gebbe is fascinated by personal martyrdom, which fit better with the religious themes of her first film than the hollow maternal saga of her latest. Featuring a narrative trajectory which deserves some credit for being as strange and ultimately insane as it gets, the real issue is the film takes itself so seriously, and thus Gebbe sets an accidental course for camp in a melodrama which finds solace in the supernatural.

In ancient myth, the mother pelican during times of famine pierced her breast to revive her dying young, and was subsequently lassoed into symbology for Christianity. Wiebke (Hoss) runs a successful stable as a horse trainer who readies animals used by the police force. Alone with her adopted daughter Nicolina (Adelia-Constance Giovanni Ocleppo), they decide to expand their nuclear family through the adoption of another child, but red-tape in Germany has made it difficult for Wiebke in her native country as a single mother. Finding a child she bonds with in Bulgaria, the five-year-old Raya (Katerina Lipovska), Wiebke is finally able to bring her new child home only to have her diagnosed with an attachment disorder which doesn’t allow her to feel empathy for others. As Raya becomes more violent, threatening Nicolina’s safety and her burgeoning romance with a handsome police officer (Murathan Muslu), Wiebke must decide whether or not to keep this new child she has convinced herself she loves.

Pelican Blood ends up feeling like an Anti-Vax mother’s manifesto, eschewing the validity of the varied medical community opinions outlined in the film (not to mention a wide range of customary but stability inclined social norms, including a romantic liaison) to dive headlong into irrational voodoo territory which makes the film, if anything, its own sort of special Satanic soap opera. Hoss, as usual, doesn’t miss a beat, and damn it, she does her best to sell the hell out of this characterization even as Gebbe gives her little to work with.

We’re never made to understand why Wiebke is so keen on this particular child, whose love and affection comes at the comfort and expense of her other daughter. Of course, her career as a horse trainer sheds some light on this (“there are no problem horses,” she remarks off-the-cuff to her peripheral love interest), but Pelican Blood is about as pro-equine as Equus (1977), as these noble creatures are merely props used for show, as superficially maximized as the unnecessarily tortured human characters. In short, why Wiebke, (who has “a void,” we’re advised by her witch doctor, not to mention a scar under left eye suggesting past trauma which explained her current caginess) doesn’t return the blonde Bulgarian child after a handful of extreme scenarios (such as learning Raya molested her friend’s infant son by putting a stick in his anus; or when Raya threatens her other daughter on a number of other occasions; or when Raya smears her feces all over the bathroom; or when Raya has dismembered animal parts in her room; or when she finds evidence of Raya torturing animals in the woods; or when she learns Raya has Reactive Attachment Disorder), makes Pelican Blood merely another exercise in masochistic extremes from Gebbe, who is interested only in making the audience recoil.

While there’s nothing wrong with this per se (where would we be without other boundary pushing extremes, such as Pasolini’s Salo, for instance?), Gebbe’s scenario seems only to suggest certain individuals (i.e., mothers) should ostensibly have no limits or boundaries (in other words, unconditional love) in the administration of care for their children, whether biological or chosen.

Gebbe’s film is worth mentioning in comparison to another German film from this year about an extremely troubled child bouncing around in her country’s flawed social services system, Nora Fingscheidt’s System Crasher, about a 9-year-old whose rejection by her mother has turned her into a child only capable of creating strife and despair amongst anyone unfortunate enough to be designated as her guardian. Gebbe’s Pelican Blood is ultimately more noteworthy than this, however, it’s far too conspicuous with its aims (such as when the 5-year-old Raya screams at Nina Hoss, “Am I broken?”). Sometimes interesting but more often preposterous (and downright problematic in its reluctance to embrace the elements of horror it tries to purloin in castigation of the medical community), Pelican Blood is a frustrating conversation piece and a somewhat ineffectual exercise in extremes.

Reviewed on September 8th at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival – Special Presentations Program. 127 Mins.

★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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