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LOCARNO 2022 Cineasti del presente

Review: Astrakan

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- David Depesseville presents his debut feature film about adolescence, combining impressionism and cruel realism and exuding dark-to-sinister undertones

Review: Astrakan
Mirko Giannini in Astrakan

Presented in a world premiere within the Locarno Film Festival’s Cineasti del Presente competition, Astrakan [+see also:
trailer
film profile
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by David Depesseville depicts the daily life of a pre-teen called Samuel (played by Mirko Giannini) who hides a shady past. Complicated if not totally enigmatic, the film’s main character seems inhabited by a darkness which slowly becomes an abyss. Incapable of verbalising the malaise he feels, Samuel perspires (bodily fluids are central to the film) and vomits whatever he can no longer contain within himself; he lets his body speak on his behalf. Vertiginous and ambiguous, Astrakan takes us inside the inner world of a lost young man by way of cruel realism and surrealist evocations.

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Even though he’s only twelve years old, Samuel has already lived a sadly eventful life. Orphaned by both his parents – his dad seems to have been killed by the police, while we know nothing about his mum – the film’s young protagonist has been entrusted to the care of Marie (played by actress and singer Jehnny Beth) and Clément (Bastien Bouillon) who look after him as best they can, without having received the requisite training or acquired the experience necessary to comprehend his malaise. These foster parents, who already have two sons, Alexis and Dimitri, make no secret of the fact that they need the money the welfare system pays them to look after Samuel. But their pragmatism doesn’t stop them from growing attached to the boy in an awkward yet sincere manner. We witness the protagonist’s integration into this new family, which also includes a young and ambiguous uncle who triggers ghosts which Samuel finds hard to keep at bay. Over and above good and evil, two concepts which often seem to merge into one in his mind, Samuel is just a disoriented child who reacts to the world around him with the only tools available to him: dissimulation and a form of violence which has always been part of his life.

Although the story reminds us of hyper-realist film worlds along the lines of those created by the Dardenne brothers, the film sets itself apart through glimmers of a metaphorical side with nigh-on baroque undertones, a visual representation of the emotional whirlwind inhabiting Samuel. Yet the film’s real strength resides in the aridity of its mise en scene, in moments where the protagonist’s face imposes itself in front of the camera in its full, dark simplicity, revealing an inner world that’s difficult to decipher. The film’s insistence on metaphorical images – the final scene, accompanied by an imposing piece of classical music, where the director seems to look back over the film from the sole viewpoint of the young protagonist, is a key example of this – is, at times, superfluous and excessive. It’s actually in the film’s Bressonian realism, its well-balanced choice of actors and of the natural scenery which envelops them, that it finds its real potency.

Astrakan is far more than a precise account of the ambiguous and vertiginous time marking the transition from childhood to adolescence. It tackles the incredibly delicate topic of paedophilia, as seen through the eyes of a lost pre-teen who is busy trying to survive his past, as well as his present, whilst clumsily trying his best to decipher them.

Astrakan is produced by Tamara Films.

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(Translated from Italian)

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