Visit Vienna as a tourist and you aren’t likely to see kids like Ramasan, the 11-year-old subject of docu director Sudabeh Mortezai’s empathetically observed fiction debut, “Macondo.” To find such foreigners, one must venture to the outskirts, where the eponymous immigrant settlement offers housing to nearly 2,000 refugees taking shelter from their home countries. As an Iranian who split her childhood between Tehran and Vienna, Mortezai can clearly identify with the confused emotional state of her young protagonist, treating his unique situation as one example of Austria’s complex immigrant experience — a deeply humanist perspective well suited to international festival travel.
Having augmented her Vienna-based film studies with a certificate from UCLA, Mortezai blends the multifarious threads of her background for an approach that feels intuitive, authentic and overall quite accessible. By selecting a seemingly typical youngster and elevating his concerns to the same monumental level at which he experiences them, the helmer is clearly channeling the Iranian tradition, yet with the slightly chilly distance we associate with Austrian cinema. And although she resists a musical score in favor of a more verite approach in synch with her nonfiction training, Mortezai isn’t afraid to privilege minor melodramatic episodes.
Of course, it helps that she has chosen a magnetic young actor on whom to focus, casting a bilingual Chechen boy named Ramasan Minkailov in the lead. At age 11, Ramasan would be considered old enough to serve as man of the house in Russian society, but remains a child in the eyes of Austrian authorities. Together with his mother and two sisters, he fled from Chechnya to Vienna several years earlier and can barely remember his father, who was killed in battle, though a shrine that his mother, Aminat (Kheda Gazieva), keeps in the living room perpetuates a certain heroic ideal of the man in the boy’s mind.
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As it is, Ramasan finds himself torn between Chechen custom and his new Austrian environment, experiencing the carefree life of a boy while the pressures of manhood begin to loom. Some of his friends retaliate against their surroundings, keying rich people’s cars and breaking into a work site that exploits underage immigrant laborers, and the film shows Ramasan attempting to reconcile these impulses with his inner moral code. In the absence of a father, he looks to an old neighbor for guidance, unable to expain why he doesn’t attend the mosque. One can sense the old ways breaking down as kids like Ramasan assimilate, while other traces — a fear of wolves, upsetting pictures drawn in class of tanks firing upon his family — suggest how much traumatic experience he must get over in order to move on with his life.
When an ex-soldier who served alongside his dad shows up in Macondo, Ramasan can’t help but wonder about the father he barely knew. This man, Isa (Aslan Elbiev, a sensitive-looking actor with three fingers missing from his left hand), is infinitely patient with the boy and wants to help his friend’s widow in any way he can. Even so, Ramasan is slow to trust the stranger, opening up to him one moment and turning on him the next with the understandably contradictory hesitation of a traumatized child.
Like so many kid-centric foreign films, “Macondo” benefits from the fact English-speaking auds can’t judge the line readings, relying on Minkailov’s stormy intensity and facial expressions that project the decision-making gears turning beneath. Shot in sequence and improvised according to a script Mortezai never shared with her cast, the narrative unfolds patiently, its crisp scenes clearly capturing each stage in Ramasan’s transformation from carefree youth (spinning his sisters in a shopping cart) to pint-sized patriarch (brandishing a knife with the intent to kill), while relying on auds to make sense of his increasingly tempestuous behavior.
Though the story ultimately proves quite simple, Mortezai maintains the suspenseful impression that things could go in any direction along the way: Young Ramasan is both vulnerable enough to be abused, and capable of sudden, unprovoked anger. Will he be victim or aggressor? Is this story the prelude to a tragedy, or the optimistic account of a difficult life finding its way back on track? Without the slightest hint of manipulation, “Macondo” allows audiences to discover Ramasan’s fate for themselves, opening its heart to a character who becomes our connection to an incredibly foreign lifestyle, just arm’s reach from opportunity the rest of us take for granted.