We Bought a Zoo
A widowed father played by Matt Damon moves to the South Californian country and purchases a zoo with his family
On Film4: 6 Sep 6:25PM
A sobering study of the daily routines of an Austrian paedophile who keeps a 10-year-old boy imprisoned in his basement. From first-time director Markus Schleinzer.
Poor The Austrian Tourist Board. They're really not going to be happy with this one. But if Michael Schleinzer hadn't made this film about a seemingly normal insurance clerk who keeps a young boy enslaved in his basement, then it would only have been a matter of time before somebody else did.
Needless to say, this is a sensitive subject. And Schleinzer's stint as casting director on Haneke's The White Ribbon no doubt served him well when it came to choosing a young actor who could handle the difficult role of the incarcerated boy. He chose well - despite his tender years, newcomer David Rauchenberger expertly negotiates the line between childish neediness and resentful defiance.
But this film is really about Michael, the paedophile who has been holding the boy captive for God knows how long (we can only infer that it's been at least three Christmases). It's also about the mundanity of 'evil' when you study it up close, going about its day to day business. The whole film is drenched in banal beiges and oranges as Michael and his prisoner eat dinner together, do the washing up, watch telly and assemble jigsaw puzzles. At times, they seem almost like father and son. Which is why it's all the more harrowing when the full extent of their relationship is made clear. We never see this explicitly, but by keeping the most extreme abuse off-screen, Schleinzer leaves our imaginations to work their worst - a disturbing but effective trick he may have picked up from Haneke.
A handful of too-convenient plot-driving coincidences sap the film of some of its plausibility. But there's also a thornier problem. Schleinzer goes so far out of his way to be unsensational and matter-of-fact about his subject that it's hard to see what point he's trying to make. "A society can only develop to the same extent that it is able to get to grips with its offenders," he says. Fair enough. But if the intent of the film is to promote understanding of paedophillia with a view to preventing it, perhaps we need to examine the causes as well as the consequences.
A brave, unavoidably distressing debut from Markus Schleinzer, sensitively acted and directed. But if you're going to make an analytical film about paedophilia, you need to say more than just "these things happen".
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