It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
'My Sister Maria" is brave, heartless, and exceedingly strange, a quasi-documentary in which the actor Maximilian Schell mercilessly violates the privacy of his older sister, Maria. It is filmed mostly on the Schell's family farm in Austria, where Maria, a famous star from the 1940s through the 1960s, lives in decline and seclusion. Like a modern Norma Desmond from "Sunset Boulevard," she is surrounded by television sets, all playing videos of her old movies. "It all comes back, and I'm inside the scene," she says. "I was happy then."
She is not senile, precisely, or at least Maximilian refuses her the escape of that diagnosis. She has simply arrived at a decision: Having given her life to entertaining others, she has arrived at a time when the others must care for her. A psychiatrist explains to Max that his sister's mental "center for discipline" has been destroyed -- something that sounds more like a punishment in a horror film than an actual condition.
For Maximilian, his sister's condition is explicable, and her recovery clear: She has given up and wants to spend all day in bed, and if she will only get up and walk, each day a little farther, her heart will pump blood to her brain and she will -- what? Recover? That this regime is forced upon Maria in the middle of an Alpine winter leads to scenes bordering on black comedy, as the pathetic old woman is sent out into the snow to laboriously walk a slippery path. More than once, she slips and falls. That a body double is obviously being used relieves us of concern that she will break a hip, but provides us with unsettling questions about the movie: How much of it is real, and how much devised, staged or contrived? Once after the double falls, there is a closeup of Maria's face on the ground. Is she willingly acting here? Was the scene contrived? You rarely know exactly what the screenplay means with a documentary, and certainly not this time.
The film opens with paparazzi forcing themselves into Maria's home to grab photos of the old woman, which appear the next day in a paper. What are we to make of this? Did Maximilian use secret cameras to record this transgression? Unlikely, since we see the paparazzi approaching the wrong house, talking with a housekeeper and moving on to the right house; and then we see them inside. So the paparazzi were actors, apparently, directed by Maximilian for the film. And when Maria is shown the newspaper, her dialogue is right on target: "I used to be on page one. Now I'm on page three." We can accept that the film restaged a paparazzi invasion that may really have happened, but how much indignation can we feel when Maximilian himself shows his sister at length, her beauty ravaged by time?