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Pelican Blood
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by Jay Seaver

"Impressive when indie; less so when creepy."
3 stars

If you live in the Boston area (and maybe others), "Pelican Blood" is available for streaming via two separate routes: The Nightstream streaming film festival, a cooperative effort between local genre-oriented fests canceled by the coronavirus pandemic, and the Coolidge Corner Theatre's partnership with Goethe-Institut to present noteworthy German-language films, which is generally material perceived as classier than that. I'm curious as to which group finds it more satisfying; it is by turns exceptionally earnest and deeply weird, and does a better job of moving between the two than being both at once.

Wiebke Landau (Nina Hoss) is a gifted equestrian, helping to train mounted police while raising foster daughter Nikolina (Adelia-Constance Giovanni Ocleppo). Things are going well - she's helping a policewoman bond with a reluctant animal; something seems to be passing between her and officer Benedikt (Murathan Muslu), who is getting close to silver-fox territory; and she's been approved to adopt another girl from a Bulgarian orphanage, Germany being reluctant to place girls with working single mothers. And while 5-year-old Raya (Katerina Lipovska) is adorable, she immediately starts not just testing the limits of Weibke's authority, but showing signs that the trauma of her early life has left an even greater mark upon her.

Nina Hoss and writer/director Katrin Gebbe are able to rapidly sketch out Wiebke as compassionate but not one for a lot of nonsense, the person you would want reassuring both skittish horses and children who might have abandonment issues, and a look around the house that she seems to be capably renovating as she and her girls discover a need fits in with how she's not particularly worried about finding a husband or the other things that society often declares as prerequisites to being a mother or business owner. As Raya reveals herself as being more than Wiebke had bargained for, Hoss has to show how Wiebke sees this as a threat to everything she is - her capability, her decency, and even her womanhood - without a whole lot of talk, because this is a person who explains things she knows well rather than asks for help, so it's all got to play out across her face.

That makes it in large part Hoss's show, and she's reliably excellent, but Gebbe and the rest of the cast do a very nice job of showing how her focus on Raya is causing the rest of her life to suffer, and what's especially smart is that the implication is not that Wiebke will bring everything around her crashing down but that the rest will cut her loose lest what's consuming her also swallows them. Murathan Muslu is there to play the love interest, but he plays Benedikt as clear-eyed and well-aware of just how much of his own stuff he has to worry about, while young Adelia-Constance Giovanni Ocleppo does a very nice job of showing Nikolina as having good instincts for someone her age without making her seem precocious or wise.

Gebbe takes the audience through some strange and unnerving territory on the way to where it's ultimately going - she makes damn sure that the audience can't dismiss Raya as just an extreme brat or doubt that Wiebke is going way beyond sensible or even unorthodox means of dealing with it - and it's fascinatingly transgressive without ever really treating that as a badge of honor. Even the detours into the more supernatural-adjacent material is interesting, circling back to the folktale that give the film its name and showing how a kid's inability to explain her own mind and an adult's desperation can meet. The last sequence or two seem to find her losing the plot, unfortunately - it's one thing to keep going after the film says, look, here's the lesson you've got to learn, because Wiebke may be just that stubborn, another to completely undercut everything the film has been building to, no matter how impressively staged that sequence might have been.

The thing is, that's the sequence that probably gets the movie booked at the genre festivals and seen at all outside German-speaking and foreign-film audiences, and there's certainly an audience that will appreciate the film coming from that direction. There's probably a clever way to make a film like "Pelican Blood" where the two halves being in conflict with each other creates interesting ambiguity, but this winds up closer to one diminishing the other.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33175&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/08/20 14:48:40
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Nightstream Virtual Film Festival For more in the 2020 Nightstream Virtual Film Festival series, click here.

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