Dir.: Bas Devos; Cast: Alba Rohrwacher, Willy Thomas, Hamza Belarbi, Lubna Azabal, Mieke de Grotte; Belgium/Netherlands 2019, 87 min.
Bas Devos is back with another hybrid feature, a vision of urban anxiety and alienation. The feature works as an installation where actors represent Brussels’ lost souls, very much like his 2014 Berlinale winner Violet.
Inspired by the Brussels’ subway bombings of March 2016 Devos shows us a world out of synch. Often the images break down totally: we get a black screen. Other intervals include long shots of the skies. We watch young immigrants from the Middle East, at school and playing football. “Brussels is called the Jihadi capital of Europe. It would be better to bombard us”. One of the youngsters is Mehdi (Belarbi). He lives with his parents and two younger siblings on a council estate. His older black sheep of the family Ahmed Ahmed puts him in a no-win situation: stealing their grandmother’s jewellery, so he can pay his debts. Mehdi resists. Another bewildered soul Samira (Azabal) makes the only spoken statement of the entire feature the rest are elliptical images: “Violence for me used to be pixels on TV, now I can feel that I can touch it”.
Meanwhile, Wannes is in a permanent state of angst, unable to get hold of his son Boris, a fighter pilot stationed in the Middle East. He tries to reach him via Skype, but the connection always breaks down. In the Mall, the brutalist architecture and cement walls close in on the shoppers creating a claustrophobic hell. Wannes has a sister, Els (de Grotte), whose husband is dying. The doctor alleviates his last hours of life. The siblings share an unspoken closeness. But closer still is his German Shepherd, who sleeps on his bed.
Alba (Rohrwacher) is convincing as a vulnerable woman with an eating disorder. Working as a translator with the EU, she is having a break from her fiancée who lives in Rome. Alba picks up a one-night stand on a strobe-lighted dance floor, and sends him away after sex. She knows her fiancée will do the same. When she has faints at work, the fear of something sinister leads her to ask Wannes for advice, but is not convinced she has brain tumour. “The internet says so”.
It turns out that Mehdi couldn’t find the jewellery – or at least that’s what he tells Ahmed in the Mall. He sits down depressed as two armed soldiers tell him to “keep his backpack close to his body”. At the end Wannes gets a long message from Boris explaining his job: “All images are stored and filed away. There is nothing more to it”. The camera circles a fight plane, like a commercial.
Hellhole unfurls in the city’s drab interiors. Often we get still photos – humans, seem secondary, mostly talking behind glass, in disjointed conversations. Breath-taking and original, Hellhole is like the portrait of a space station, run by aliens, as humans become more and more impersonal. AS
BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL 2019