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by Arash T. Riahi

grade: 6

In Oskar & Lilli, problematic visual solutions are accompanied by an excellent characterisation of the protagonists and a welcome fairy-tale touch, the most appropriate solution for a drama where hope never dies and where, sometimes, breaking the rules may indeed turn out to be the best choice one can ever make.

Looking for lost smiles

What does it mean for a child being forced to become an adult prematurely? What numerous problems can arise from situations that do not allow the very young to live their age and their affections to the full? This is certainly a difficult topic to deal with. And yet, when the right approach is found, a lot of interesting insights come out. And this, then, is what director Arash T. Riahi has done – albeit with a few imperfections – in staging his Oskar & Lilli (original title: Ein bisschen bleiben wir noch), based on the novel of the same name by Monika Helfer and which should have been part of the programme of the Diagonale 2020, cancelled because of the Covid-19.

Anyway, having resumed (or almost resumed) the usual daily routine after the end of the lockdown, with the reopening of the cinemas Oskar & Lilli finally premiered – albeit postponed – in Austrian theatres. And so, immediately audiences and critics felt perfectly connected with little Oskar (played by Leopold Pallua) and Lilli (an excellent Rosa Zant), an eight and thirteen year old brother and sister from Chechnya, who, following a suicide attempt by their mother, are entrusted to two different families and temporarily separated. Between one adventure and another, between one bump in the road and another, their greatest wish will be to be all together again, to be the family they once were.

Two deeply connected lives, whose childhood ended all too soon. And it is precisely on this special bond that Oskar & Lilli is focused. A bond that is emphasised over and over again by intertwined shoelaces, colourful plush handcuffs and a constant, desperate search for happiness shared by the two siblings, manifested in continuous reproductions of smiling faces, now with simple drawings, now with tinned peas and slices of apple placed on a dish.

Because, in fact, young Oskar and Lilli – with a difficult past and a present that seems to give them no security – initially seem to have lost their serenity forever. Oskar, the youngest, after an initial moment of despair, suddenly becomes an adult, while maintaining a healthy playful attitude. It is up to him to take care of his foster brother and grandmother. To him the task of trying to communicate with his mother interned in a psychiatric hospital through long, long letters. Lilli, for her part, seems to reject everything and everyone. She only finds comfort with her classmateand at night, when everyone is asleep, she nervously scratches her arm until it bleeds.

Two characters, theirs, undoubtedly well-written, who more than in their own relationship or in their relationship with their mother, see their ideal fulfilment in specific relationships with certain members of their adoptive families, Lilli with her stepmother, Oskar with his elderly Parkinson’s-sick grandmother, his only true friend.

But if, overall, the story of these two unfortunate young people – while not representing, in terms of films, anything particularly new – is captivating from the very first minutes, certain directorial choices do not always convince. And if upside-down cameras and oblique shots are intended to convey the idea of the strong sense of confusion experienced by the two protagonists, they soon end up being excessively manneristic and sometimes gratuitous. But these, however, are not the only faults made by Arash T. Riahi. And indeed, not only during the screening of Oskar & Lilli, but also by looking back over the entire filmography of the Iranian-born but Austrian-adopted director, we can see how the filmmaker seems to be more at ease with writing than working behind the camera. This has been the case with many of his previous works and it is also the case with Oskar & Lilli, where problematic visual solutions are accompanied by an excellent characterisation of the protagonists and a welcome fairy-tale touch, the best solution for a drama where hope never dies and where breaking the rules, even if only to spend a night in a luxury hotel with one’s family, forgetting, for a few hours, all the problems of everyday life, can be the best choice one can ever make.

Original title: Ein bisschen bleiben wir noch
Directed by: Arash T. Riahi
Country/year: Austria / 2020
Running time: 102’
Genre: drama
Cast: Leopold Pallua, Rosa Zant, Anna Fenderl, Christine Ostermayer, Markus Zett, Alexandra Maria Nutz, Simone Fuith, Rainer Wöss, Ines Miro, Viktor Krüger, Sonja Romei, Alice Marie Schneider
Screenplay: Arash T. Riahi
Cinematography: Enzo Brandner
Produced by: Wega Filmproduktion

Info: the page of Oskar & Lilli on iMDb; the page of Oskar & Lilli on the website of the Diagonale; the page of Oskar & Lilli on the website of the Austrian Film Commission