One of the defining traits of a mother is her unconditional love. No matter how rotten a child can be, a mother’s love can be undying and never waiver through troubled waters. It is both a blessing and a curse – this endless devotion and sacrifice that comes with being a parent. But just how far does that love go? How much can one parent give and risk in order to help a child that is seemingly hopeless?

In her sophomore feature Pelican Blood, writer/director Katrin Gebbe captures the immense dedication that mothers can exude despite the most defiant and dangerous kids they try to nurture and protect. 

There is an ancient legend surrounding the mother pelican that predates Christianity. In times of famine, the mother pelican would wound herself by striking her breast to feed her young with droplets of blood. Another rendition of the legend consists of the mother feeding her dead chicks by way of bloodletting to bring them back to life but sacrificed her own as a result. The film’s title draws from the sacrificial nature and, as the name suggests, follows a mother desperate to protect, heal, and nurture her two daughters. 

The mother in the film is Wiebke (played beautifully by the impeccable Nina Hoss), a professional horse trainer who lives on a ranch in rural Germany. Her expertise lies in breaking wild horses as she assists the police with preparing them for any dangerous situation they may encounter in the line of active duty. Top Gun is her primary focus as he regularly bucks and has a naturally obstinate disposition. Yet, Wiebke’s patience and stern demeanor helps calm him in order to allow his submission. A single woman in her forties, Wiebke is the mother of one adopted nine year old daughter named Nicolina (Adelia-Constane Ocleppo), a sweet and reserved little girl who is endlessly thankful to finally be out of an orphanage and in the arms of a loving mother. Wiebke decides to adopt another little girl by the name of Raya (Katerina Lipovska), who has experienced an immense amount of trauma despite only being five years old.

Upon entering the orphanage, Wiebke sees a mural on the wall of the pelican mother and learns about the legend. While society frowns upon a single woman adopting children, Wiebke is determined to provide the best care and life possible for her daughters. However, that becomes increasingly difficult once Raya begins to show her true colors. Throwing food, threatening her sister, attacking her classmates, and lashing out against Wiebke all test her patience but she refuses to give up on Raya. The extremes to which Wiebke goes to help her daughter subsequently jeopardize her own safety, Nicolina’s safety, and the safety of Raya’s peers all while experiencing the harsh judgement that accompanies societal norms.

Lipovska gives a thunderous performance as Raya. She is able to fluctuate between evil and innocence so naturally and brings a disturbing (albeit exhausting) intensity each time she acts out. Nicolina is a character foil to Raya as she elicits a calm disposition and helps her mother uphold the discipline in the household. However, she grows increasingly fearful as her younger sister’s antics grow closer to life or death scenarios. There is a blatant parallel between the horses Wiebke breaks and Raya. Wiebke is dedicated to both her profession and her children despite any criticism on her methods. When Raya is diagnosed as a sociopath who lacks any emotion or empathy, Wiebke will stop at nothing to try and elicit a humanistic response.

Gebbe addresses all of the stressful aspects of motherhood and the increased difficulty that comes with adopting a child who has been exposed to extreme trauma. Wiebke is stigmatized for being a single mother and once Raya becomes abusive, she has to deal with the fact that children are scared of her while mothers have ostracized both of them from social events and eventually school altogether. The manner of treatment is also explored throughout the film. Since the title suggests a folklore aspect, there is a supernatural or mythological layer to eradicate Raya’s anger when modern applications fail her. However, unlike other “evil child” genre films, the presence of something sinister is not as overt. Gebbe’s film is anchored in a psychological drama which tests the bounds of motherhood aligning itself more with a film like The Good Son rather than The Omen

Each actor delivers a truly emotive performance, and the film itself tackles love in every form even when there is an undertow of anger, pain, and desperation beneath its surface. Wiebke’s level of empathy is rare as Raya has been bounced around from placement to placement. It is a sobering reality that there are individuals who view children (or humans in general) as mere objects you can return, abandon, or terminate when they become too much to bear. Wiebke’s determination speaks to the capacity for understanding and patience that is rarely seen in society. Her strength creates a compelling and heartwarming portrayal of what it means to be a mother and a family within horrific circumstances. Pelican Blood is a cinematic lesson in love, patience, and empathy. Gebbe reminds us that even when we are faced with an apathetic void, small sacrifices of care for other human beings can still elicit substantial changes.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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About the Author

Marisa Mirabal is a writer living in Austin, TX alongside her dog and Stephen King collection. When she isn't conjuring up film criticism, she can be found spinning film scores on vinyl or sipping whiskey.