Winner of IDFA’s top feature prize and Sundance bound, Leonard Retel Helmrich’s docu, “Shape of the Moon” reps an ambitious melange of ethnography, family drama and expressionist style. Focus is the same Jakarta-based matriarch, Rumidja Sjamsuddin, and her family featured in Dutch-Indonesian helmer’s previous “Eye of the Day,” here seen moving back to her home village after life in the city gets to be too much. Sometimes slow, but punctuated by breathtaking views, digi-shot “Moon” waxes brightly on a big screen and should draw more fests and upmarket broadcasters into its orbit, but is unlikely to have much theatrical pull.
As in “Eye” — which along with “Moon” will form part of a projected trilogy — Retel Helmrich’s gaze aims to encompass the cosmic, the near-microscopic and everything in between. The human story encompasses marriage, relocation and cataclysm, the last repped by a ferocious fire, impressively filmed up close, that destroys a swathe of Jakarta’s poorest district.
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Main protag is Catholic widow Rumidja who struggles with poverty, homesickness, and trying to accept the conversion of her maturing son, Bachtrar, aka Bakti, to Islam in order marry his Muslim g.f. Other family members seen in “Day” have smaller parts here. Rumidja is the main caretaker for granddaughter Theresia, aka Tari, a bright child of 10 or 11, whose heartrending reaction when grandma decides to stay in her old village instead of returning to Jakarta forms one of the pic’s key emotional beats.
Other characters include a crocodile-smiled moneylender, who puts the screws to Rumidja for high-interest repayments on a loan used to buy her prized couch. Here, Retel Helmrich cuts away none too subtly to one small lizard biting the neck of another. Similarly, the helmer uses a shot of a platoon of ants carrying a leaf to parallel the rural village’s team effort at rotating an entire house for Rumidja when she settles back in her hometown. Although the Sjamsuddin family remains the main focus, the doc takes in anti-U.S. protest marches and observes characters discussing Indonesia’s inter-religious strife to add political and sociological dimension.
Audacious shooting style is the pic’s strongest suit. Retel Helmrich and co-lenser Ismail Fahmi Lubish use lightweight Mini-DVs, to dance round their subjects in long takes, and send the camera spinning 360 degrees down tunnels. In the film’s most spectacular sequence, a makeshift dolly is used to follow one character walking across a railway bridge with a guard rail spanning a chasm several hundred feet deep, a sequence which could give even the most iron-stomached viewers vertigo.