“Mercy” is a forbiddingly austere title for German helmer Matthias Glasner’s polished, accessible moral melodrama, which is less about the eponymous virtue than assorted states of guilt. Charting the fallout of a hit-and-run fatality from the perpetrator’s perspective, this gripping if ostentatiously spare film boasts pristine production values, topped by lustrous lensing of Norwegian locales, and a tersely moving performance from Birgit Minichmayr, but its self-admiring tone and iffy narrative parallels lessen its impact. Were Glasner’s name replaced by that of Susanne Bier, whose work the pic more than passingly resembles, arthouse success would be assured; regardless, a healthy festival life awaits.
Arguably representing an easier sell than Glasner’s previous Berlinale competition entry, 2006’s nearly three-hour serial-rapist study “The Free Will,” “Mercy” reteams the director with leading man Juergen Vogel and a predilection for punishing subject matter, but subplots involving marital infidelity and classroom warfare take his latest into the realm of highbrow soap opera. The film is set in the remote Norwegian coastal town of Hammerfest, where residents live in permanent twilight for much of the year, but revolves chiefly around a German migrant family, thereby inviting the audience to share its sense of dislocation. Though the opening title cards make much of the nocturnal quirks of the arctic setting, the story, which shares a basic premise with 2007’s “Reservation Road,” could take place just about anywhere.
Eminently editable 132-minute film is in no rush to plunge us into the drama, lingering instead on the ample Christmas-card charms of this cozy, snow-swaddled community seemingly perched at the edge of the world, where it seems nothing terrible could possibly happen. But even the earliest peeks into the domestic life of engineer Niels (Vogel), his nurse wife Maria (Minichmayr, “Everyone Else”) and their preteen son, Markus (Henry Stange), point to a less-than-idyllic existence: Interactions between the couple are politely chilly, recorded by Markus with unnerving solemnity on his iPhone, and that”s before we learn Niels has been sleeping with attractive blonde colleague Linda (Ane Dahl Torp) for the better part of six months.
When Maria hits an unknown object on her drive home one night — distracted, in a region-specific touch, by the northern lights — she doesn’t pause to investigate, but fears the worst well before the news spreads that one of Markus’ schoolmates has been killed by an unidentified vehicle. Maria and Niels agree to keep mum, but guilt gnaws away at them as they become acquainted with the dead girl’s grieving parents. On the flipside, their complicity proves a reactivating factor in their marriage, a development that turns Linda, rather implausibly, into a nascent bunny-boiler.
Kim Fupz Aakeson’s ambitious script attempts to braid the largest moral elephant in the room with Niels’ remorse over his affair, throwing in Markus’ guilt over his bullying of a pudgy classmate for good measure. It doesn’t take a therapist to discern that this family is bound by separate desires for forgiveness, but these partnered dilemmas are too disparate in scale and consequence to illuminate anything much more than the faintly pedantic, writerly architecture of the piece. Some overly pointed dialogue doesn’t help: Minichmayr is an expressive enough actress not to need lines like “I’m really hurting inside.”
Still, however lacking in subtlety, “Mercy” has a blunt emotional candor that remains affecting almost in spite of itself, and it commendably doesn”t always deliver the expected resolution to a brewing conflict. Maria’s reaction to Niels’ admission of infidelity is particularly intriguing, illustrating a mature prioritization of feeling to which less complex dramas wouldn’t usually admit. The cast is instrumental in serving the film’s internal and external conflicts: Vogel seems overly rigid until his passive mien exposes the finer difficulties of his marital relationship, while Minichmayr is twitchily superb, astutely taking an unsympathetic approach to a character whose moral infractions haven’t earned her the privilege of hysterics.
Potentially televisual in narrative, “Mercy” is elevated to bigscreen status by the sheer level of craft on display. Taking soaring widescreen advantage of the eerily glistening Norwegian tundra and capturing the surreal pearliness of the so-called “polar night,” Jakub Bejnarowicz’s camera negotiates interiors with just as much fine-tuned attentiveness to shifting light, while German electronica collective HomeSweetHome”s score is tastefully off-kilter throughout. It’s probably of little comfort to these tortured characters that their pain looks so gorgeous, but it’s certainly an asset to the film.