A divorced father has to face the emptiness of his existence after his youngest daughter graduates and moves on in Dutch prestige pic “Tirza,” based on Arnon Grunberg’s monumental novel. Again fearlessly tackling an apparently unfilmable tome, veteran director Rudolf van den Berg (“Evenings,” “The Cold Light of Day”) restructures Grunberg’s exploration of First World malaise and middle-aged, white-male angst and turns it into a mostly impressive, decidedly highbrow arthouse item with only a few moments of heavy-handedness. The Netherlands’ foreign-language Oscar submission is doing boffo biz locally and should find admirers (and some naysayers) on the fest circuit.
Grunberg’s novel was immediately hailed as an important work upon publication in 2006, earning him comparisons with Dostoyevsky. The book is named after the youngest daughter of protag Jorgen Hofmeester (Gijs Scholten van Asschat), and it relates how the difficult father-child relationship — which can also be read on a more metaphorical level — slowly comes undone by Jorgen’s impression that he is becoming ever more superfluous.
Jorgen is a stuffy, straight-laced literary editor and divorced father of two. He hasn’t seen his ex-wife, Alma (Johanna ter Steege), in years, and his eldest daughter has moved to France to open a B&B (“despite her brains,” Jorgen laments). The apple of his eye, 18-year-old Tirza (Sylvia Hoeks), has just graduated from high school and gone on a trip to Namibia with her Moroccan b.f., Choukri (Nasrdin Dchar).
Pic’s first shot shows Jorgen waving goodbye at the airport before returning home and reading a letter he subsequently uses as toilet paper. Van den Berg then cuts to a shot of Jorgen emptying his office; he’s been made redundant.
A flashback shows Tirza still at home and quickly establishes the borderline-incestuous rapport the two had before it introduces Alma, who drops by unannounced. Clever use of flashbacks and well-integrated “ghost” appearances by Tirza further flesh out the backstory before the tale jumps to its main location: Namibia, where Jorgen goes to look for his daughter when she doesn’t answer his calls and emails.
The virtuoso opening sets up many of the book’s major themes. As he did for his adaptation of “Evenings,” scribe-helmer van den Berg has reinvented Grunberg’s novel for the cinema, shaking up the chronology, sharpening characters and conflicts while translating them into cinematic images and rhythms. The only scenes that suffer slightly are the ones with Alma, who has so little screentime that her dialogue has become overly literal.
In Namibia, Jorgen becomes ever more desperate in his search for Tirza, which is complicated by the presence of a 9-year-old child prostitute (Keitumetse Matlabo) who follows him everywhere, the pic effectively establishing her as a surrogate daughter.
Setup may sound overly complicated and the metaphors a tad pretentious, but this ambitious work has a natural flow that allows auds direct access to Jorgen’s bourgeois-gone-crazy mind as the story works its way toward its big reveal (which could have been dwelt on at greater length). Along the way, many complex and sometimes uncomfortable ideas are explored.
Jorgen is white, middle-aged, sexually frustrated, well off but without a job, divorced, left with no one to care for in his life — possibly the role of van Asschat’s career. His fully controlled perf is a marvel of precision. His screen partners all have less time but are generally strong, though Hoeks, as the enigmatic Tirza, lacks the charisma needed to make auds fully understand the lost father’s obsession with his daughter.
Magyar d.p. Gabor Szabo, with whom van den Berg has collaborated before, gives the widescreen pic a classy sheen while making full use of interior and exterior locations. Other craft contributions are also strong, with the exception of the oboe-heavy, woe-is-me score by Bob Zimmerman (no relation to Bob Dylan).