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Film Review: ‘Tonio’

Variety logo Variety 12/15/2016 Guy Lodge
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Grief is an emotional trial without shape or structure. Certain self-help books may speak tidily of its stages, but the mourning process can be as long as a piece of string, and no less prone to knotting and looping. That irregularity is something that “Tonio” understands well: Based on acclaimed Dutch novelist Adri van der Heijden’s account of surviving the death of his 21-year-old son, Paula van der Oest’s film thoughtfully reflects the shattered psyche of its characters in its restless, non-linear timeline and oblique, artfully sawn-off scene construction. Where it falters, however, is in its rather misty sense of who these people were before their lives were disassembled by one late-night traffic accident. Easy as it is to tearfully empathize with their plight in a universal sense, the human specifics of the tragedy are less vivid.

Still, “Tonio’s” frequently arresting style and unabashed tear-jerking skills should secure it at least as much international festival exposure as van der Oest’s Oscar-nominated 2001 feature “Zus & Zo” — whether or not the film, selected as The Netherlands’ foreign-language Oscar entry this year, gains similar awards traction. Domestically, where van der Heijden’s book was a strong seller, the film has grossed over $1.1 million since its October release, a robust figure for such a downbeat work. In territories where van der Heijden and his book are less known quantities, “Tonio” represents a tougher sell to distributors.

“I am writing this for you, [but] not for the repose of your soul. It has to become unsettled.” Thus does van der Heijden (played by Pierre Bokma) address his deceased son in an introductory voiceover lifted directly from the book. Hugo Heinen’s adaptation doesn’t shy away from this overtly literary tone, though the poetic intimacy of a grief memoir is harder to forge on screen. Narratively and stylistically, “Tonio” is dreamily splintered from the outset: As scenes break and blend into each other, alternating between exposition and pure atmospherics, the film’s own soul is aptly loath to settle.

The skeleton of the tragedy soon becomes clear enough: Tonio (Chris Peters), the gentle, creative only child of Adri and his wife Mirjam (Rifka Lodeizen), was fatally hit by a motorist on his late-night cycle home, leaving his stricken parents to ponder the unfinished pieces of his life. What takes longer to emerge are the interpersonal dynamics of this interrupted family. Even given the film’s leading perspective, Adri frequently comes across as an inscrutable figure, perhaps to his nearest and dearest ones as well as to the audience — despite Bokma’s sturdy emoting. Mirjam remains an underdeveloped figure throughout; as pointedly as the film denotes the distance that a lost child can leave between parents, it’s hard not to wonder how the loss looks and feels from her side.

Less a sustained narrative than a wandering memory piece, then, the film flips casually back and forth through the family album — showing us Tonio as an ebullient toddler in one scene and as an exasperated college student in the next, arguably reflecting his parents’ own blurred awareness of his development. Editor Sander Vos deftly keeps the film in agitated chronological flux, sometimes using locations to bind disparate events — most obviously, but effectively, pairing the hospital wards where Tonio enters and exits the world. Cinematographer Guido van Gennep, meanwhile, playfully manipulates light and color to match the nature of the remembrance: Certain flashbacks are quite literally rose-tinted, while gloaming greys and blues predominate in the present.

The closest thing to a driving narrative arc in this otherwise impressionistic portrait concerns the rather unsensational mystery over a potential woman in Tonio’s life. Notwithstanding a faintly morbid fantasy interlude in which father conducts son through a romantic maneuver, it’s a development that might further put viewers in mind of Nanni Moretti’s similarly themed but more prosaically fashioned Palme d’Or winner “The Son’s Room.” As Adri conducts his own tenuous, desperate investigation, in the absence of anything else to do, “Tonio” registers most insightfully and movingly as a study of the many compartments of our loved ones’ lives that we never see while they’re living.

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