×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Berlin Film Review: ‘The Magic Life of V’

Live Action Role-Playing is therapeutic for a woman from a troubled family in this handsome but somewhat unrevealing doc.

Director:
Tonislav Hristov
With:
Veera Lapinkoski, Ville Oksanen, Heikki Oksanen, Slava Doycheva, Mike Pohjola, Mikael Saarinen, Asta Tikkanen. (English, Finnish dialogue)

1 hour 27 minutes

The surprise Oscar nomination of impressionistic “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” suggested a broadening of acceptance towards documentaries well beyond standard “Just the facts, ma’am” territory. Still, juggling style and substance will always be a tricky matter in that form, as evidenced by a film such as “The Magic Life of V.” This latest from Bulgarian-Finnish nonfiction director Tonislav Hristov is so invested in looking like a polished narrative feature that it seems downright uninterested in providing basic intel about its subjects.

That’s a problem, since this is no abstract slice of evocative atmosphere, but a movie about a real-life young woman dealing with family issues of alcoholism and mental disability. It’s not enough for the film to look great; can’t we get some actual insight, too? The alluring craftsmanship will no doubt keep “The Magic Life of V” — which premiered at Sundance en route to the Berlinale — busy on the festival circuit. But it’s likely to frustrate viewers who hope to actually learn something about the people being so carefully photographed.

We meet Veera as an apparent teen participating in an elaborate LARP event in rural Poland, where she and others don ankle-length robes to combat “demons” in a Hogwarts-type environ. These “live action role plays” have a therapeutic as well as escapist effect for many, as evidenced by the occasional tears, and Veera’s own emergency session with a staff “counselor” when “things hit too close to home.”

She seems to attend such large-scale games fairly often, using them to work through emotions otherwise suppressed. They’re primarily rooted in the abusive past behaviors of the volatile, hard-drinking father she’s now estranged from, in particular his treatment of her older brother Ville. Both siblings have been bullied, Ville because of his not-always-perceptible mental handicaps (dating from a brain-damaging infant fever), Veera because she’s his sister. Their mother divorced dad some time ago, when she finally caught him being violent toward the children.

Those are potent themes to explore, but “Magic Life” seems mostly attracted to the visual novelty of LARPing, as well as shots of photogenic Veera looking picturesquely thoughtful. Even when she finally has an awkward reunion with her father, who seems sincerely apologetic about his past behavior, we can’t be sure how much she’s “acting” for the camera, or how much he’s constrained by its presence.

At the Sundance screening attended, Hristov noted the film was shot over five years’ course, albeit with only 20 actual shooting days — suggesting this allowed his crew to get “only the best” material. But in reality, the effect is of real lives very sporadically glimpsed under artificial circumstances. We learn more about Veera’s ever-changing hair colors than we do about the essentials of her existence. Does she work? Go to school? Have a relationship? How does she fund these quasi-therapeutic LARPing holidays abroad?

We get a slightly better picture of Ville’s situation, because it’s relatively simple, and gets discussed when there are crises (such as his getting into a drunken scrape, or being moved into a managed-care facility). But for the most part, Hristov expects us to get involved in lives we grasp only vaguely. He doesn’t even bother conveying the passage of time, so we’re surprised when Veera says she hasn’t seen her father in 15 years — not long after she’d mentioned it had been 10.

Even the LARP world is viewed strictly from the outside, as exotic spectacle. Who exactly is Veera’s role-play alter ego “V”? The title would seem to imply “she” is the psychological key here. Yet our protagonist doesn’t act palpably different in or out of character, and has little to say about what exactly “V” means to her. It’s like making a movie about Rorschach blots without anyone interpreting them — admiring the nice patterns without the analysis that would lend meaning.

Nonetheless, “Magic Life” holds interest, however many basic questions it leaves dangling at the fadeout. A large part of that is due to the carefully thought-out aesthetic packaging, most conspicuously Alexander Stanishev’s handsome widescreen compositions.

However, the very nature of the highly worked presentation here, comparable to the relatively meager insights afforded, raises what may be the film’s most pressing question: If filmmakers are going to use real people as de facto actors in ambiguously authentic situations (let alone with three writers credited), why not just hire the professional kind, and give them better dialogue?

Popular on Variety

Berlin Film Review: 'The Magic Life of V'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary Competition), Jan. 31, 2019. (Also in Berlin, True/False film festivals.) Running time: 87 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — Finland-Denmark-Bulgaria) A Making Movies, Kristine Barfod Film, Soul Food presentation, in association with Finnish Film Foundation, Danish Film Institute, Nordisk Film & TV Fond, AVEK, Bulgarian National Film Center, Creative Europe, YLE, Arte G.E.I.E., SVT. (Int'l sales: CAT & Docs, Paris.) Producers: Kaarle Aho, Kai Nordberg. Co-producers: Kristine Barfod, Andrea Stanoeva.

Crew: Director: Tonislav Hristov. Screenplay: Hristov, Kaarle Aho, Lubomir Tsvetkov. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Alexander Stanishev. Editors: Anne Junemann, Hristov. Music: Petar Dundakov.

With: Veera Lapinkoski, Ville Oksanen, Heikki Oksanen, Slava Doycheva, Mike Pohjola, Mikael Saarinen, Asta Tikkanen. (English, Finnish dialogue)

More Film

  • Judy & Punch review

    Damon Herriman Stands Out as 'The Nightingale' and 'Lambs of God' Lead AACTA Nominations

    Dark thriller, “The Nightingale” and miniseries “Lambs of God” lead the pack at the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards. In nominations announced on Wednesday, they picked up 15 and 18 nods, respectively. Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale” was one of six films nominated in the best film category. With others including Mirrah Foulkes’ [...]

  • Cardi B

    Cardi B Joins Vin Diesel in 'Fast & Furious 9'

    Cardi B has joined the cast of Universal’s “Fast & Furious 9” in an undisclosed role. It’s the rapper’s first movie part since her role as the stripper Diamond in STX’s drama “Hustlers.” Vin Diesel disclosed the casting Tuesday in a post on his Instagram account with a video that showed him and Cardi B [...]

  • James Wan

    Film News Roundup: James Wan's Horror Thriller 'Malignant' Gets August Release

    In today’s film news roundup, James Wan’s “Malignant” gets a late-summer release, a Rita Hayworth documentary is shooting and Women in Animation have announced diversity awards winners. RELEASE DATE Warner Bros. has set an Aug. 14 release date for James Wan’s horror thriller “Malignant.” Wan will direct the movie, based on a story by Wan [...]

  • Michael Shannon Benedict Cumberbatch Tuppence Middleton

    How Martin Scorsese Saved 'Current War' From Harvey Weinstein

    Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon finally gets to release his version of his long-in-the-making “The Current War.” The film, about the competition between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, was originally set to be distributed by the Weinstein Company after Harvey Weinstein recut it, much to Gomez-Rejon’s chagrin. To make matters worse, Weinstein premiered the movie at the [...]

  • 42west logo

    42West Co-CEO Allan Mayer Hospitalized After Car Accident

    42West Co-CEO Allan Mayer is in the hospital due to injuries from an Oct. 17 car accident, Variety has confirmed. The public relations firm described the crash as “serious” and said that he had surgery on Oct. 20 to help repair multiple broken bones. “Allan and his family thank everyone for the outpouring of love and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content