Bravo New World: Seidl Returns with Desolate Portrait of Fallen Hustler
There’s always a healthy thread of humor lurking under the despair of Ulrich Seidl’s films, both documentary and otherwise, and this is most certainly the case in his long awaited return to narrative filmmaking with Rimini, a cross-cultural portrait of a hustler hit with a karma bullet. It’s been nearly a decade since Seidl unleashed his perversely enjoyable Paradise trilogy, though his documentary features have continued to unspool, as with the surprisingly sweet In the Basement (2014) and the disturbing Safari (2016). The groundwork of his latest feature is basically the story of a failed playboy gone to seed reuniting with his daughter, though undercurrents of cultural trauma bubble up sporadically. As would be expected, Seidl resists delivering any clear messages, avoiding the general template we’ve seen in this oft-formulaic situation, and we’re left in the lurch as to whether these (mostly) repellant characters will reach any real sense of salvation.
Richie Bravo (Michael Thomas) is a has-been lounge singer living in Rimini, Italy. The death of his mother brings him home for a brief reunion in Lower Austria with his younger brother Ewald (Georg Friedrich) and his father (Hans-Michael Rehberg), who lives in a nursing home. Returning home, Richie falls back into his regular routine of smoking, drinking, and performing for mostly middle-aged and senior females who cherish his local celebrity status as a has-been singer. Richie also uses his fading glory to moonlight as a gigolo for several of his fans. Suddenly, his estranged daughter Tessa (Tessa Göttlicher) shows up, demanding Richie pay her for all the years of child support he ignored. Guilt-ridden and well-meaning, Richie tries to do the right thing by satisfying her demands, but goes about it the wrong way.
Seidl’s partner Veronika Franz is credited as co-writing this long-gestating feature, and one can feel a parallel fascination and disdain in their concoction of the obnoxious Richie Bravo, played with tremendous gusto by Michael Thomas, whose performance here should lead to international acclaim. Seeing as the plot points are on par with The Wrestler (2008), it’s intriguing to see how Seidl takes our expectations and dashes them to bits, while Thomas has a presence not terribly unlike the mangled visage of Mickey Rourke (and Tessa Göttlicher is comparable to the troubled, willowy Evan Rachel Wood). But allusions to potential comic relief also fall short, and sometimes Rimini plays like the nightmare version of Toni Erdmann (2016).
Its unusual bookends focus on Hans-Michael Rehberg, the celebrated German character actor (who appeared in Schindler’s List), in his final screen performance, bereft in a nursing home while suffering dementia. Key sequences suggest significant childhood trauma what with Richie’s sharing of his first sexual experience being with his mother and his father’s troubling rambling suggesting a penchant for Nazism. Seidl hardly seems interested in reconciling these themes, along with Richie’s apparent Islamophobia, which makes the denouement feel strangely fitting, though technically unsatisfying in the film’s inability to navigate the cliches of peripheral Arab characters. But we are able to get a sense of Richie Bravo’s extreme narcissism and failed dreams, a pity considering his infectious energy and obvious singing talents. Surprisingly, we get only once sequence with his brother, played by Georg Friedrich, whose presence is superseded by the Ben-Hur and Charlton Heston poster art hanging on the walls of Richie’s childhood bedroom.
Another potential weak spot is Tessa Göttlicher’s performance, arriving like a thunderstorm of guilt to milk her father for his ambivalence over the last twelve years. This is the dramatic catalyst for the third act, but Seidl’s most interesting and humane moments involve the women who hire Richie as a sex-worker, particularly Annie, played by Claudia Martini, who takes on the tragic energies usually employed by Maria Hofstatter in Seidl’s filmography.
Shot by Wolfgang Thaler (Michael Glawogger’s Whores’ Glory, 2011), Rimini has a muted, moth-eaten vibe, where the deserted winter beaches of Rimini are littered with unhoused refugees, and the abandoned apartment complexes look like the apocalypse has comfortably set in. Shuffling between venues in his seal skin coat, Richie Bravo comes alive through a variety of stage shows (perhaps several too many) for senior citizens, some genuinely awed by his star power, or perhaps his foreignness. But the only time Richie actually seems authentic is through his disdain for those he dislikes—-everyone else is a potential target. Repellant, but not without a handful of meaningful scenes (including a bizarre, drunken hide and seek grift about as anxious as the psych ward party scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Rimini may contend to be about a particular place, but really it’s about a state of mind.
Reviewed on February 11th at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival – Competition Section. 114 mins.