'I Was At Home, But...' Review: A Stark Meditation On Grief And Life [NYFF 2019]

It takes a while before a human face appears in Angela Schanelec's I Was At Home, But, which opens on a static scene of nature. When it begins to aim on human faces, the exact details of their lives are left vaguely clarified, leaving puzzle pieces for the audience to sort out. The movie wears its indefinite nature just as its deliberately incomplete title. On the streets of Berlin, a widowed mother, Astrid (Maren Eggert), appears to sleepwalk through her life. Pieces of scenes suggest off-screen chaos without clarifying the context. The mother arrives at the office and flings her arms around her child (Jakob Lassalle), as if he had been lost or a runaway. Later, the mother speaks with a teacher, pleading him for understanding, feeling they are discussing his expulsion. She also undergoes the mundane task of purchasing a secondhand bike, before arguing with the seller (Alan Williams). There are disparate subplots that do not orbit the core plot, such as a classroom rehearsal of Hamlet and a teacher (Franz Rogowski) breaking up with his girlfriend.Uncertainty of context infuses the film. It's difficult to pinpoint an emotional core until halfway through when the mother slinks herself down on a burial plot and reveals that her theatre director husband died two years earlier. It becomes evident that unexamined grief simmers throughout her going-ons and the recent aftermath of a lost child. To some extent, she has found ways to move on, such as dating her child's tennis coach, but her sorrow insinuates itself in unsavory outbursts: one simmering one where she criticizes a professor's (Dane Komljen) filmmaking choices, another where she argues with the secondhand bike seller with seething frustration as the latter tries to accommodate her, and then in her most explosive tantrum, she kicks her children out of the apartment simply because they made a mess and rebuffs their attempts at affection. Schanelec sharply depicts a middle-class single motherhood in crisis. Astrid's irrational vindictiveness and rejection of her children's embraces is followed by an image of maternal tenderness, with a Pietà image of Astrid embracing her youngest as if pleading for forgiveness without words.This is a movie that holds its breath and takes its sweet time before exhaling. The viewing experience is a succession of lingering shots rather than a deep dive. Toward the end, there's a contemplative moment engulfed in a natural light where an older sibling treads through a bubbling stream with his young sibling on his back. In perhaps the most dialogue-dense scene in the film, Astrid criticizes the professor on the artifice of its casting choices, it seems to externalize Schanelec's self-awareness of her chosen ambiguity. The film's portrait starts to assemble piece-by-piece. Not all puzzle pieces fit a cohesive whole of I Was At Home, But and they don't need to. It forgoes the cinematic ideals of narrative completeness and takes its scattered parts in stride. It radiates a reverence for the interiority of its players, how they are living pass—or through—an internal crisis, allowing a distant view without prying in. Arguably for many, it is so stuck on the ellipses to have an impact, even one that can creep up. But I couldn't help but to inhale and exhale with the film./Film Rating: 7 out of 10