International audiences don’t know the name Nina Hoss like they should. The star of Christian Petzold’s masterful “Phoenix” is such a refined, nuanced performer that she can make good material great and elevate mediocre material into something worth seeing. She kind of does the latter twice this festival season with a pair of films that have a surprising amount in common given they both star Hoss as a mother who becomes deeply invested in children in their lives. One of the two works too hard against Hoss’ committed work to be effective overall, but she singlehandedly rescues the other one.
The latter film in that sentence and better of the two Hoss Fall Fest vehicles is Ina Weisse’s “The Audition,” a film about a violin teacher who may be slowly unraveling. At first, the story has echoes of Nadav Lapid’s “The Kindergarten Teacher,” another story of an instructor who mentally unravels, but it’s more of a character piece than a study of art and artistry. Hoss portrays a woman who is on edge from the very beginning – in an early scene, we see her borderline-OCD behavior as she has to move tables several times to get the right seat at a restaurant and changes her order repeatedly – and it’s the story of how her domestic and arguably mental decline impacts her relationship with a new student that serves as the crux of the story.
The new student is Alexander (Ilja Monti), a talented student who Anna argues for after an on-the-fence audition at the school at which she teaches. The pressure to teach Alexander to unleash his potential adds another weight to the anxiety that Anna seems to carry with her on a regular basis, and bleeds into her life with her husband Philippe (Simon Abkarian) and especially how she treats her son Jonas (Serafin Mishiev). “The Audition” is an obvious slow-burn – we know that Anna is going to make a mistake with Alexander and possibly Jonas, the only question is how damaging it will be to all three of them – and the narrative drags at a times, but Hoss keeps it engaging. I’m not convinced the ending is satisfying, but seen purely as a character study, this one works.
I’m less positive on Katrin Gebbe’s “Pelican Blood,” which also stars Hoss, this time as a horse trainer named Wiebke, who has an adopted daughter already and is in the process of adding a second named Raya (Katerina Lipovska). Wiebke travels to Bulgaria to adopt the 5-year-old and problems begin almost immediately, and these not your general child-rearing issues. Raya bites her new sister, screams at the top of her lungs, smears feces everywhere, and then starts lighting things on fire. Told repeatedly to give up on what is clearly a very-damaged child, Wiebke refuses, the parallel between a woman who trains horses to be domesticated and someone who won’t give up on a nearly-feral child drawn a little too explicitly.
“Pelican Blood” works best when it’s something of a riff on “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and other stories of troubled youth. We hear about Raya’s dark background and of something called an empathy disorder, and wonder how we would act in that situation. It must be heartbreaking to give up on a child that you’ve allowed into your family and heart, even if you have to do so to protect your other daughter and yourself. Sadly, Gebbe doesn’t really trust the human story here, turning it into something more like “The Omen” or “Hereditary,” which is symbolism that may work for some people, but makes the final act a disappointment to me. Hoss is engaged and committed throughout, but the movie loses track of its own characters, becoming a horror film that it never really needed to be – nothing is scarier than not knowing what to do as a parent. Real demons are secondary.
Finally, there’s the droll and clever “The Whistlers,” something of a change of pace for Romanian filmmakers Corneliu Porumboiu. The writer/director of “12:08 to Bucharest” isn’t exactly known for his narrative thrust, and so it’s funny that he’s made what could be called a noir/comedy, a film with very purposeful echoes of Alfred Hitchcock and dark humor reminiscent of Joel and Ethan Coen, although all of it with a distinctly Romanian sense of humor. “The Whistlers” is sometimes caught between Porumboiu’s dry comedic timing and a plot that I think I’m supposed to be able to follow more than I was (although I’m not sure about that), but it’s certainly never boring.
A corrupt cop named Cristi (the wonderfully deadpan Vlad Ivanov) travels to an island called La Gomera, where he’s been sent to contact a businessman named Zsolt (Sabin Tambrea), who knows where a lot of money is hidden. Corrupt cops, money in mattresses, even a femme fatale played by Catrinel Marlon – this is noir material, but done with a blank, deadpan sense of humor. For example, the criminals communicate in a whistling language (giving the film its title) because it sounds like bird calls. This leads to tense scenes in which serious people put their fingers in their mouths and imitate bird noises. Porumboiu is deconstructing tough guy mythology while also inventing a sort of new film language of his own.