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TIFF 2019 Review: Pelican Blood

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Image courtesy of TIFF

In an ancient myth that precedes Christianity, a tale is told of a pelican that, seeing her dead chicks, pierces her breast to revive them with her own blood.  This symbolism is seen early on in Pelican Blood writer-director Katrin Gebbe‘s second feature film.

Wiebke (Nina Hoss) and her adoptive daughter Nikolina (Adelia-Constance Giovanni Ocleppo) live on an idyllic horse farm in Germany.  The two share a close relationship and happy life, where Wiebke spends her days training police horses for riot duty.  The two travel together to Bulgaria to expand their family (since “single women who work can’t adopt in Germany”) by adopting a young girl, Raya (Katerina Lipovska).

At first the girl seems sweet yet shy, however soon she begins acting out, becoming violent and unmanageable.  What starts first as temper tantrums and defiance turns quickly into biting, threats, and fear for all those around Raya as her behaviour escalates in intensity.  Wiebke, who can train any horse, seemingly sees Raya in a similar ilk, trying different approaches with her new daughter to no avail.  After evaluations and tests, a doctor finally tells Wiebke that Raya, in fact, has an undeveloped part of her brain that doesn’t allow her to show fear or empathy.  She is, in essence, free of emotion.  Fearing for her safety as well as that of her other daughter, Wiebke needs to decide how far she will go to help the new addition to her family, even when those lengths put strain on her relationships and become increasingly unconventional.

Pelican Blood, running too long at 127 minutes, starts off a relatively straight forward dramatic thriller – Raya being a ‘bad seed’ in a good family.  However, in the second hour the film starts to place the questionable behaviour in Wiebke’s hands.  Anchored by the superb Nina Hoss (also stellar at the festival in The Audition), the film owes much of its likability to her performance.  Even as Wiebke starts to unravel, Hoss is still able to root her firmly to the ground.  But neither her nor the chilling young Lipovska, portraying Raya with enviable intensity, can overcome the final act.

The film starts off with picturesque views of the German countryside, horses running through misty hills, an uneasy soundtrack playing that foreshadows the films ultimate direction.  Katrin Gebbe sets a beautiful backdrop for her tale.  The trouble begins in the last half hour or so, when Gebbe starts to introduce elements of the fantastical that don’t seemingly belong in a film that has previously been rooted in science and theory.  The late addition of these gothic horror tropes feel out of place, derailing what, to that point, is a relatively solid thriller about motherhood.   Unfortunately this film, just isn’t quite able to cross the finish line in winning fashion.

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