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BERLIN 2018 Forum

Review: The Tree


- BERLIN 2018: Portuguese filmmaker André Gil Mata's film is pure cinema, inviting comparisons to his mentor Béla Tarr and some of the greatest directors ever

Review: The Tree

An old man in a city under siege, during a very snowy winter, goes around collecting bottles from his neighbours at night in order to bring back drinking water. He carries them hanging by a rope from a tree branch over his shoulders, slotted behind his neck. When he gets to the mouth of the river, after a lot of walking and rowing in an old boat, and starts filling the bottles, it is suddenly daytime. From the same POV, we see a boy sledding down a slope to his mother. But then the boy wakes up from his dream in a dark attic, calling for his mum. The only thing he hears from outside is a voice barking orders in German, and then marching boots. After the soldiers have left, he goes out into the night with a sack and trudges through the snow from one deserted ruin of a house to another, picking out canned food or clothes. 

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Walking through the woods, he reaches a clearing where a very specific tree is located. It is unmistakably the tree that the old man saw in the first half of the film, as he was rowing down the river. The boy lights a campfire. The old man spots the boy and starts rowing faster, while the boy has also seen the old man and started running away. 

This is the whole plot of The Tree [+see also:
film profile
, a film for which attributes such as "slow cinema", and "meditative", "cerebral" and "sensorial" are certainly true, but are also an understatement. Portuguese filmmaker André Gil Mata has created a piece of pure cinema in this Berlinale Forum entry. The events described in the first two sentences of the first paragraph take the whole first hour of the running time. This segment consists of what feels like a total of six shots. There is almost no dialogue, and no music. There is only one character in two timelines that fuse into one at the end of the film.

The Tree is a primal film about cycles of life and cycles of history. It is about regrets and possible pasts, but also about stoically accepting one's destiny, standing firm in the face of disaster. Time in The Tree exists on several planes. One is the literal film time, which seems to go by very slowly. The other is the time of war – or, rather, two wars: the Second World War and the Siege of Sarajevo. Another dimension of time is its repetition through one character, who is both the same and different in the two timelines, and who lives through these wars. 

Space in The Tree is both very geographically limited and seemingly endless. It is set in and around Sarajevo, but the running time that the events take up broadens the space in which the events take place indefinitely, making them universal. The way it is filmed also expands the space: the camera is almost always moving, panning or zooming, or trailing the character from behind. Slowly, patiently, it knows exactly where it is going and how to get there, and why. From the very first image, a beautiful, long shot that combines both timelines, we know we are in safe hands. 

The hypnotic sound design, of footsteps in the snow and clanking bottles, mesmerises the audience, and instead of boxing them into one world, it opens numerous possible worlds for each viewer to enter. Not only does Mata give the audience time to zone out and think, but he creates a perfect frame for it, as the strong contrast between the nocturnal setting and the snow means the picture is almost monochromatic – after prolonged exposure, it has the effect of a negative of a blank canvas.

Mata was a student of Béla Tarr’s at the Sarajevo film.factory, and the influence of the Hungarian auteur, and especially of his last film, The Turin Horse [+see also:
film review
interview: Béla Tarr
film profile
, is undeniable – it must have been there for the Portuguese filmmaker long before the two met. But The Tree also invites comparisons with Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Klimov, and even Lynch. It is one of those rare films so accomplished and yet so open to interpretation that each viewer will find their own references, and at the same time, it owes as much to painting as it does to cinema.

Béla Tarr has a successor, and his name is André Gil Mata.

The Tree was produced by Lisbon-based C.R.I.M.

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