Venice 2019: Katrin Gebbe's 'Pelican Blood' Brings Evil into the Home
by Alex Billington
September 5, 2019
Sometimes horror films don't have much horror, and sometimes dramas can be just as horrifying as horror films. Sometimes films defy labels and don't fit into any one genre. Pelican Blood is a good example of all of this, a film that presents itself as a challenging straight-forward drama about a woman adopting children. But there's something much more sinister going on within, and it reveals itself part of the way through. This film is the ultimate "and you thought your child was evil, wait until you see this one" joke, but it also has something beautiful to offer - an earnestness that separates it from all the other horror films that integrate similar concepts about evil children. Pelican Blood (originally titled Pelikanblut) is a German film from filmmaker Katrin Gebbe, and it's one of the most unique discoveries at the Venice Film Festival this year.
Both written and directed by Katrin Gebbe (also of Nothing Bad Can Happen), Pelican Blood introduces us to a single mother who runs a big horse stable in the countryside in Germany. She has already adopted one German girl earlier (played by Adelia-Constance Giovanni Ocleppo), and they have a near perfect bond as mother-daughter. So she decides to take in another, and this time travels out of country. She returns with Raya (played by Katerina Lipovska), a shy little girl who doesn't show much affection or emotion at all. At first it seems like she just needs more time to get used to her new home, but as more time passes by, it seriously seems she might be possessed by something evil that won't let her settle in. Her new mother tries everything to calm her down and make her feel comfortable, but nothing practical (or impractical) seems to work. She doesn't want to give her up, no matter what, so she gets desperate and – well, you just have to see.
Pelican Blood is a very slick, low key "kinda-horror" film with some splendid cinematography. I enjoyed the film quite a bit, however it drifts between very different tones and concepts that clash in an odd way that throws into question the whole point of the film. Nina Hoss, who stars as the mother Wiebke, is excellent and she really draws on every last emotion to craft this character. There's so many layers and so many things she's feeling throughout, both good and bad, and watching her fall apart as the time goes by is entrancing. There is never a shot in this in which I don't believe she truly is this woman, who is struggling with a whole boatload of emotional baggage. And yet she fights on, fights to make a difference with these kids. It seems the point of the film is to try and remind us that maybe we should fight to save others, not just give up, but when the film starts throwing in the horror twists it starts to lose its focus and sully that important message.
The weirdest thing about it is the way it begins to play out as a horror film, but also tries to remain realistic throughout. I could tell that the director is trying to balance this realism and horror in a compelling way, creatively cutting back on showing anything that really is supernatural or terrifying. However, the issue is that it never really sticks with one side entirely which makes it all seem a bit questionable. What does she really want us to think about at the end, what should we take away from watching this? Whatever it is, the final shot throws it all out the window. I was still caught up in it, and I appreciated the attentive filmmaking and creative choices. It's a film worth discussing - which is always a good thing. You'll want to talk about it with others, to analyze and dissect the story, and to figure out whether it actually is an effective film or not.
Alex's Venice 2019 Rating: 7 out of 10
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