They must put something very strange in the water up in Austria, for their cinema to be so chillingly descriptive and mundanely dispassionate, even when dealing with sensitive subjects. A lot has already been made about Michael, the feature debut of casting director Markus Schleinzer, and its proximity to the coldly provocative work of Michael Haneke (on whose films Mr. Schleinzer worked). The neophyte director certainly didn't make it easy on itself by evoking memories of the infamous Natascha Kampusch case in this tale of the final weeks in the captivity of the 10-year old Wolfgang (David Rauschenberger) by outwardly normal insurance agent Michael (Michael Fuith), told from the point of the view of the pedophile instead of the victim. But this is a more intrigued and less distant picture than Mr. Haneke would direct, with a curious common thread with another well-worthy Austrian debut, Sebastian Meise's Stillleben (also photographed by DP Gerald Kerkletz).

     Shot in precise, static, chilly setups, Michael refrains from faked outrage or voyeuristic contempt. Mr. Schleinzer isn't interested in judging Michael (it's always very clear the film does not condone his actions), but in probing what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil": how can a man who blends in effortlessly with the society around him, in line for a promotion at his office, going on ski trips with friends and having one-night stands with waitresses, be capable of such a deviation of morality? Mr. Schleinzer probes but never presumes to answer. And Michael works equally as a chillingly commonplace look at the darkest spots inside our own minds and as a desperate, black satire of family mores, in the way that Michael attempts to play at a "normal" (if hidden) family with the boy and in the none-more-dark final act where the disconnect between society and individual, community and isolation, becomes unwittingly desperate.

     It's a remarkably thoughtful, assured debut, carried by Mr. Fuith's superbly controlled performance, able to reveal the humanity that lies inside this tortured, disturbing psychopath without excusing him or whitewashing his horrid sins.

Michael Fuith, David Rauschenberger; Christine Kain, Ursula Strauss, Victor Tremmel, Xaver Winkler, Thomas Pfalzmann.
     Director/writer, Markus Schleinzer; co-director, Kathrin Resetarits; cinematography, Gerald Kerkletz (color; processing by Listo Film); designers, Katrin Huber, Gerhard Dohr; costumes, Hanya Barakat; editor, Wolfgang Widerhofer; producers, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Markus Glaser, Michael Kitzhuber, Mr. Widerhofer (NGF in co-production with ORF), Austria, 2011, 96 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Culturgest - Grande Auditório (Lisbon), April 17th 2012.



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