Photo: TIFF
by Daniel Gorman Film

Pelican Blood | Katrin Gebbe

September 9, 2019

Nina Hoss is an absolute treasure, one of the great actresses of contemporary cinema; her collaborations with Christian Petzold produced some of the decade’s best films. It’s truly a tribute to Hoss’s abilities, then, that Pelican Blood is watchable, even intermittently touching. Katrin Gebbe’s film begins as an effective, realistic depiction of a nontraditional family unit. Wiebke Landau (Hoss) has an adopted daughter, the preteen Nicolina (Adelia-Constance Giovanni Ocleppo), and is preparing to adopt a second, the younger Raya (Katerina Lipovska). Wiebke is a working single mother, and is therefore not allowed to adopt a German child, so she travels to Bulgaria to pick up Raya — who is adorable, but comes from a horrifically traumatic background. Wiebke is determined to give Raya a safe, stable life, no matter what. So far, this is the stuff of interesting drama. But all is not as it seems, and faster than you can say The Bad Seed, Raya’s reign of terror begins: she destroys things, attacks her new mother and sister and the family friends, her classmates, and anyone else she pleases. Gebbe lays it on pretty thick, shooting nighttime scenes like a horror film and using ominous music whenever Raya starts staring off into space or glaring at a potential victim.

Pelican Blood is glacially paced, and quickly turns into a tedious exercise of waiting for the other shoe to drop, replete with obvious ‘evil child’ movie clichés. Just how bad does Raya have to behave before Wiebke returns her to the adoption agency? Wiebke tries using her expertise as a horse trainer to systematically break down her child — there’s a lot going on here, much of it boring, until the film really goes off the rails and starts introducing the possibility of supernatural possession, with black magic, spells and potions, and a climactic exorcism. It’s absolutely ludicrous, a severe left turn after the mostly realistic drama of the first half of the film, although Gebbe continues playing the proceedings perfectly straight. The only thing to keep this from spiraling entirely into overheated camp territory is Hoss’s deeply committed performance. She’s so stoic, so regal, that when a smile finally escapes from her pursed lips, it’s a beautiful sigh of relief. Likewise, when her magisterial façade crumbles into desperation, you really feel her misery. Hoss carries the film on her back, for whatever it’s worth. Gebbe has a great eye, composing unfussy frames with minimal camera movement, and a keen sense of the human body moving through both intimate spaces and sweeping vistas alike. She just needs to layoff the clumsy metaphors and heavy-handed symbolism.

Published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 2.
Published as part of Nightstream 2020 — Dispatch 1.