Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Markovics intentionally pushes viewers out of their comfort zone."

When Robert (Heinz Trixner), a gruff, reclusive ninetysomething, loses his beloved dog, he is forced to reckon with the fact that he no longer has the strength to dig a hole a bury him in the back garden. The simple solution is to employ Adib (Borhanulddin Hassan Zadeh), a young Afghan refugee desperate to make a bit of money - after haggling him down to a much lower rate, of course. Initially the two are very much at odds. Robert sees Adib as lazy, doesn't like the fact that he takes short breaks to speak on his mobile phone (conversations of heartbreaking intensity give us a glimpse of what the young man is still living with). But when he realises that Adib has a severely injured leg, he begins to see things differently. A tentative bond forms. You will begin to think that you've seen this film before, that you know where it's going.

You couldn't be more wrong.

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Karl Markovics' sometimes affectionate, sometimes funny, sometimes heart-stoppingly dark film has been criticised as tonally uneven, but sometimes life is tonally uneven. It has a freshness about it that's only partially rooted in its willingness to break with formula, unfolding like a shaggy dog tale with events following on from one another in a way that works well enough narratively but presents deliberate emotional challenges. Markovics intentionally pushes viewers out of their comfort zone. The topics he wants to explore are not things we should be comfortable with, even if we have got into the habit of telling stores about them that are designed to make it easier to smile sadly and move on.

The story of Europe is here. The title, a nickname, comes from the name that Odysseus gave in lieu of his own to fool the cyclops Polyphemus. It's a name for a persecuted traveller, and Adib's story, when eventually we hear it in the most unlikely of circumstances, is every bit as full of shocking incidents as that of the legendary Greek hero, yet ultimately not all that unusual. Between the two are caught the stories of wave upon wave of migrants who have made similar journeys over the centuries. Robert knows these stories well. He's so well versed in the rhythm of it all that we wonder how well he understands that the people who populate them are real.

As youth meets age in a small back garden, in the cramped rooms of Robert's house, in the quiet backstreets of Vienna, the laws of nature seem to be askew. Adib is confused, physically as well as emotionally vulnerable, increasingly dependent; Robert, meanwhile, seems to acquire a new lease on life and a fierce appetite for things he long ago left behind. For a little while, everything seems possible. But we're a long way from Ithaca.

Reviewed on: 26 Apr 2020
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A grumpy pensioner hires a migrant from Afghanistan to bury his dead dog.

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