Monday, February 25, 2019

Alone at sea, and then a refugee: Wolfgang Fischer's provocative morality tale, STYX opens

The new movie STYX appears to be named for that titular river of myth that one must cross to get to the underworld (or from the underworld to our living earth). Though TrustMovies does not recall the word being mentioned aloud in the film, its significance will not be lost on those who see this disturbing work. In it, co-writer (with Ika Künzel) and director Wolfgang Fischer introduces us to a medical doctor, evidently a very good one, whom we initially see in action saving the life of a victim of a car accident.

Immediately after, our gal is in her very well-equipped sailboat, off on a long sail to an island she wants to visit (and which we see only in a picture book she's taken with her on the boat).

The film opens -- in Gibraltar -- with a shot of wildlife that makes you imagine you're in the tropics or jungle, but as the camera opens up, you realize, oh -- it's civilization. Or perhaps an unusual meld of the civilized and the wild.

Herr Fischer, the Austrian filmmaker shown at right, has put together a movie that is as visceral as it is thoughtful and provocative. The scenes of our heroine -- strongly and vividly brought to life German actress Susanne Wolff (below and whom the press kit tells us is herself a credentialed sailor) -- managing all that is required for safe, smart seafaring, are handled by the actress, director and cinematographer (Benedict Neuenfels) with utter aplomb.

Once out to sea, our good doctor, Reike, meets (via shortwave radio) a nice, helpful fellow who warns her of an upcoming storm. It hits but is not especially harmful. The next day, however, she encounters a boat full of what looks like African refugees seeking European asylum. They appear to need immediate help, so she calls this in. The Coast Guard tells her to keep her distance, turn around and leave; they're handling it all. But as the hours pass, they are clearly not, and probably intentionally so.

Several of the refugees have jumped overboard and are trying to swim to her sailboat. One of them (Gedion Oduor Wekesa, above) manages the distance, barely, and from here onward, Styx becomes a kind of moral parable involving everything from the Hippocratic Oath to lawbreaking, common decency (or perhaps only how we used to define this term), survival and a whole lot more.

There is damned little exposition to the movie. What we see (and hear) is what we get, so the viewer must decipher more than is necessary in most films. This is nowhere near impossible, however, and soon we are placed firmly in the mind and moral quandary of Reike and her rescue as she and he do what they must, so far as they understand this. (The film's ending made me hope for a sequel, in which the legal and moral ramifications of Reike's -- and the Coast Guard's -- actions are further explored.)

Considering the question of immigration and what it means to Europe the rest of the western world, the movie could hardly be more timely. Yet Styx proves a good deal more than mere agitprop. It is also a very well-made movie that functions on one level as superior entertainment, even as it forces the viewer to question what s/he would do in a circumstance like this one. It may bring to mind another memorable film, Italy's Terrafirma, which in one particular scene takes an even more difficult look at immigration and the choices we face.

From Film Movement, in English and German (with English subtitles) and running just 94 minutes, Styx has its U.S. theatrical premiere this Wednesday, February 27, in New York City at Film Forum, after which it will play 25 or more cities across the country, including, come March 15, Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal) and Boca Raton (at the Living Room Theaters). Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

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