One-man film industry Ventura Pons, whose star leapt into the ascendant with the 1998 “Friend/Beloved,” makes a third consecutive showing at Berlin with “To Die (or Not),” a thought-provoking and morbidly gripping take on the fragility of life. Structured as seven vignettes, pic brings to a close Pons’ so-called “minimalist trilogy.” Though there is much here to admire, there is too little — oddly, for a film about death — that sways the emotions. Neither subject nor treatment is likely to make any mainstream impact, but fest runs look virtually guaranteed for the Catalan auteur, with offshore sales to standard Pons territories (including France and Italy) also a dead certainty.
Pons has structured his films this way before — in 1994’s “The Why of Things” and 1997’s “Caresses,” the latter, like “To Die,” also based on a play by Sergi Belbel. And until its contrived final reels, the technique works well here.
Each story shows the final minutes and death of a character. A movie director with writer’s block (Lluis Homar) tells his wife (Carmen Elias) about his new plans, and then has a heart attack; a junkie (Marc Martinez) is visited by his angry, worried sister (Anna Azcona) and then ODs; a little girl (frighteningly convincing Carlota Bantula) chokes to death on chicken bones under the gaze of her hysterical mother (Vicky Pena); a hospital patient (Mingo Rafols) starts coughing and cannot reach the alarm button; a lonely old woman (Anna Lizaran) drinks herself to death; a motorcyclist is knocked down by two cops (Merce Pons, Francesc Albiol); and finally and most powerfully, a God-fearing businessman (Francesc Orella) is shot by a hired killer (Sergi Lopez).
Death is presented as ugly, bloody and painful. At first, things are shot in grainy B&W with busy use of handheld camera; the tone ranges from the surreal to the grotesque to the absurdly cruel. At the end of each seg, the camera zooms in to a tight closeup of a dead visage, which is sometimes genuinely in-your-face grim (the junkie, for example, has accidentally swallowed broken glass). Dialogue and editing are superb, lensing daring, and perfs, especially from Pena , Lizaran and Orella, suitably intense.
Pic is subtle in its questioning of narrative expectation and in the self-conscious way it plays with time. But as the movie director’s wife points out, there’s something chilly and calculating about taking death as a pretext for narrative structure without analyzing death’s impact on the living.
The film itself is not free of such coldness, and there is little alleviating humor — not even of the black kind. Though most thesps manage to humanize their characters in a limited time, and though pic is powerful on a moment-by-moment basis, its structure prevents any real accumulation of drama. The horrors pile up, potentially leading to a kind of morbid, open-mouthed, emotional numbness rather than any new perceptions — presumably the effect Pons is aiming for.
Tension slips during the final half-hour as the lensing turns to color, the emphasis switches from death to life, and the viewer is shown, “Short Cuts”–style, how the stories could interlock and how all the characters’ lives could have been saved. (In several cases, scenes are reprised.) Thematically, this feels clever but clumsy. The message seems to be little more than a vague affirmation of life to counteract the preceding bleakness.