Rotterdam Review: Shattering Shadow (2014)

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Cast: Joseph Farroul, Abebe Ephrem Walle, Fitsum Alemnew
Director: Patrick Dechesne, Alain-Pascal Housiaux
Country: Germany | Belgium | Ethiopia
Genre: Drama
Official Trailer: Here


“For people like you and me, free falling is the only guide,” is a sentiment expressed in the course of one of Shattering Shadow’s few significant scenes of dialogue, aptly expressing the attitude with which viewers will need to approach the film in order to glean anything more than mild irritation from its opaque approach to narrative form. Yet free fall, of course, is a phenomenon forged of resistance: alluring as the rhythm of reminiscence with which the movie tells its tale might be, it seems almost at the same time to invite opposition. After all, in a film of this sort, it’s patience that’s the parachute: those who fail to have it in tow are doomed; even those who do may find theirs failing.

This is a film that bears no concern for character exposition of any kind, perhaps primarily because it’s intimately concerned with interrogating just what character is to begin with.

shattering_shadow_2013_3It’s with knowing regard for the heritage of silent cinema as a modernist mode that the film opens on a shot of a train dutifully chugging alongside the taxi from which the camera shoots. Its driver is our ostensible hero, the kind of character about whom we learn less—at first glance at least—from the movie itself than the kind of synopsis that might accompany it. This is a film that bears no concern for character exposition of any kind, perhaps primarily because it’s intimately concerned with interrogating just what character is to begin with. The recollections and reminiscences that form the bulk of the narrative, not immediately apparent as such, are as much an effort to uncover this man as to explore the world that forged him.

The directors are Patrick Dechesne and Alain-Pascal Housiaux, a celebrated team of production designers whose collaborators have included Tsai Ming-Liang and Chantal Akerman. Here they have boldly foresworn their own craft for the most part, setting their film in the barren deserts of Ethiopia where only the bare, shifting sands offer any semblance of a set. And yet they manage to use it as such: theirs is an aesthetic of uncanny allure, its faded greys invoking the intangible fantasy of memory as the sea and sky combine to one mnemonic mass; here, the past truly is a foreign country, tethered to the present with an editorial ease that attests just how quickly and compulsively its borders are traversed.

…theirs is an aesthetic of uncanny allure, its faded greys invoking the intangible fantasy of memory as the sea and sky combine to one mnemonic mass; here, the past truly is a foreign country, tethered to the present with an editorial ease that attests just how quickly and compulsively its borders are traversed.

shattering_shadow_2013_4Indeed, the directors’ disregard for the traditional screen grammar is even jarring at first, allowing us—like the oft-wordless central figure—never to feel truly at home or in control as we float from present to past. In newcomers Joseph Farroul and Abebe Ephrem Walle, they have found appropriate faces for the respective incarnations, storied visages whose crags say what often the (lack of) dialogue does not. But much as they might excel in such instances of emotion, Shattering Shadow struggles to hang together as more than a series of sequences, falters in making of its minutiae anything more than a compelling queue of scenes. It’s telling, in a sense, that it should work so much better as a trailer than it does at feature-length: it is a film of moments, and for that it is momentary.

“It’s because you don’t talk,” the driver is told by a passenger apparently accustomed to offloading her woes upon him, “It just makes it easier”. Not so for us, who may be entranced by the illusory effect of eighty minutes in the company of his recollections, but who no less struggle to appreciate just who he is at the end of it all. Sartre said that man is “nothing else but the sum of his actions”; that here we have a character so defined by inaction may well be precisely the point. Yet the same might be said of the movies, and for all the extraordinary moments and visceral visual details Shattering Shadow brings to bear, it is a film that does so little with those details as to be undone.

[notification type=”star”]59/100 ~ MEDIOCRE. It’s telling, in a sense, that Shattering Shadow should work so much better as a trailer than it does at feature-length: it is a film of moments, and for that it is momentary.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.

  • Sven Z.

    I disagree with the above review. The film is magnificent, truely sensitive. The story is aptly suggested, in agreement with our film era where the linearity of a narrative has to disappear for the benefit of a kinematic experience, of a trajectory guided by emotional milestones. Here, it is the case.
    The formal approach is modern, it pushes the audience forward in its perceptions of cinema. The (almost) mutism along the film is so strong. The editing is smart, photography is stunning, sound design, music, (non)actors are great. And keep in mind this is a first film with weaknesses but full of promises.

  • baronronan

    I don’t particularly disagree on any point, to be honest (well, I might stop short of magnificent). I’d like to think I got it across that there’s an amazing amount of talent here, I’m just not sure it’s been put to its best use. The film had me continually astounded with certain shots—I didn’t want to spoil the surprise, as it were, but that late camera move that reveals the young protagonist is vertical rather than horizontal is just incredible—but I would be lying if I said I felt those individual fragments congealed to much in the end. I’ll be first in line for the next film from these guys, make no mistake.