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by Elisabeth Scharang

grade: 6

In Woodland, the romanticism of the Waldeinsamkeit has the resigned eyes of Gerti, the habitual proxemics of Franz and the inner chaos of Marian, the only one who seems to be able to draw something positive from the encounter of two worlds, both old and new.

Being alone to feel good

Multi-tasking director Elisabeth Scharang’s return behind the camera is a bucolic, simple drama that often relies excessively on images of unspoilt, timeless nature. Noteworthy are the performances of the main actors, in particular that of the protagonist Brigitte Hobmeier, who is perfectly credible with her essential and minimalist acting. The slowness of the mise-en-scene and the simple, at times absent, script of Woodland (world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival 2023), however, give the sensation of having witnessed something already watched and easy to understand, despite the good premises.

Marian Malin, a journalist expert on environmental issues, therefore decides to leave Vienna and life with her husband Gheorghe (Bogdan Dumitrache), to move back to the district of Zwettl, where she grew up. Miraculously unharmed after the terrorist attack in the Austrian capital, in which a girl just a few metres away from her died, the emotional and psychic after-effects left by the tragedy are typical of those who survive such events and living with them becomes, inevitably, difficult.

The protagonist, impressing Brigitte Hobmeier, no longer feeling safe in the city routine, which is also and above all made up of public transport and large gatherings, thus moves into the house left to her by her grandmother in the Waldviertel countryside, the Woodland of the title. Here, without electricity or a car, the woman spends her days recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder, between wild jogs in the woods and frugal meals at the village Gasthaus, a few kilometres away from what is, to all intents and purposes, a hut to be knocked down and rebuilt. A bit like the life of Marian herself, who has escaped from a harsh and spectral place after losing her mother and, above all, without having said goodbye to her best friends Gerti (Gerti Drassl) and Franz (Johannes Krisch), who have remained to live in the village and now rightly resent this unexpected return after years of silence.

Produced by Veit Heiduschka’s Wega Film, in cooperation with Michael Katz, Woodland is inspired by the novel of the same name by Doris Knecht, released in 2015. Inspired in the sense that Elisabeth Scharang’s screenplay adapted the book to her personal experience, having been an eyewitness to the events that took place on November 2, 2020, the day of the terrorist attack in Vienna. Interesting, in this sense, is the choice not to stage a reconstruction, or at least a fictitious version of what happened, opting for two flashbacks from Marian’s tormented memories, considering that it is practically the trigger from which everything originates. Beginning, but also end: end of life, end of civilisation, end of peacefulness. Marian’s choice to escape the world, underground journeys and crowded squares is nothing new, but it has a cathartic power, because money, cars and electricity are not needed to find oneself and overcome one’s inner torments.

The battle that animates Woodland‘s narrative is twofold and sees the protagonist engaged on both fronts; on the one hand the emotional scars, which lead her to scream near an isolated autumnal lake, and on the other hand the usual life of the typical close-minded village, reluctant to new things, which since her return feels its equilibrium threatened and upset. Gerti and Franz are, in this sense, the two who, more than anyone else, suffered the departure of their friend, who used to spend the days in the woods with them, dreaming of something that never came true for anyone. The revival of unresolved conflicts will also be the trigger for the escalation that characterises the last half-hour, finally full of action and not just of clarifying schnaps and beer cans used as olive branches. A little belatedly, from my point of view.

Losing everything and surrendering in order to really start again: the film’s mantra sounds a bit like the autogenous training that ultra-trail runners put into practice before tackling such difficult feats as the uphill race up Mont Blanc. And at times, Woodland emphasises just how difficult it is to find and rediscover oneself, especially when one is a victim of others’ choices. “I couldn’t choose a life for myself,” says Gerti, always at the disposal of a tyrannical father and a first weak mother now suffering from senile dementia; “I never thought I wanted to be a father, my wife decided it for me,” says Franz, in a poignant moment of togetherness with Marian.

In this glimpse of a bucolic yet modern life, the romanticism of the Waldeinsamkeit has the resigned eyes of Gerti, the habitual proxemics of Franz and the inner chaos of Marian, the only one who seems to be able to draw something positive from the encounter of these old and new worlds. All in all interesting, at times even enjoyable, thanks also to a few witty jokes, Woodland does not manage, in my opinion, to find its own satisfactory fulfilment, probably due to a too simple narrative that, from being a strong point, also becomes its limit, resulting in predictability and banality.

Original title: Wald
Directed by: Elisabeth Scharang
Country/year: Austria / 2023
Running time: 100’
Genre: drama
Cast: Brigitte Hobmeier, Gerti Drassl, Bogdan Dumitrache, Johannes Krisch, Sarah Zaharanski
Screenplay: Elisabeth Scharang
Cinematography: Jörg Widmer
Produced by: Wega Film

Info: the page of Woodland on iMDb; the page of Woodland on the website of the Austrian Film Commission