Berlin-based American filmmaker Nora Hoppe’s “The Crossing” is a melancholy reflection in five acts on exile, redemption and making peace with the past. Cold and alienating, the film feels a little mannered in its lugubrious austerity and heavy symbolism, but is nonetheless an original, unconventional first feature that shows a strong visual sense and skill at sustaining an enigmatic atmosphere. Still, only the most patient festival audiences appear likely to respond to this demanding drama, whose themes are exceedingly slow in crystallizing.
Action unfolds during a single day in Brussels, photographed here with a drained pallor that looks more Eastern European. Recently retired menial laborer Babak (Behrouz Vossoughi) is having difficulty collecting his pension due to the unavailability of identifying documents from the native Afghanistan he fled 20 years earlier.
At dawn in the rooming house where he lives, Babak meets mysterious stranger Sarban (Johan Leysen), who claims to be in town to track down relatives. The narrative is punctuated at five points throughout the day by their encounters over food and cigarettes in the dingy kitchen.
Sarban’s references to a past that corresponds oddly with that of Babak unnerve the old man and revive painful memories he has tried to forget. Little by little, the stranger — who gradually is revealed to be some kind of otherworldly angel — coaxes Babek into recalling the family, life and homeland he left behind.
He does this gently at first, preparing special Afghan meals Babek hasn’t eaten in years, and later harshly, forcing him to relive the indirect betrayal that left him with the blood of loved ones on his hands.
Full of surreal touches and arrestingly framed images, this dirge-like journey of purification and release from solitude has its own solemn eloquence, enhanced by suitably intense work from veteran Iranian actor Vossoughi and Belgian thesp Leysen.
Considerable attention has gone into the soundtrack, which combines the music of contemporary Afghan composer Zaher Howaida (who appears briefly in a tavern scene) with traditional folkloric songs, and incorporates a disquieting mix of noise such as wind, whispering and howling dogs. For reasons that remain unclear , the majority of the drama is spoken in English before switching to Farsi in the final act.