Brussels is known for super-strength beers served in unique glasses, the Mannekin Pis sculpture, Tintin, and pommes mit mayo. Brussels is also the Jihadi capital of Europe, a breeding ground for terrorists that was thrust into the spotlight following deadly attacks in Paris in 2015 and the Belgian capital itself in 2016. The harshly named Hellhole directly addresses these issues, loosely interweaving the lives of a young Muslim boy, an older therapist, and an Italian translator.
It’s a hyper-link story, such as Crash or Babel, with the hyper taken out; Hellhole is a slow arthouse film that’s more enamoured with its own style than the stories it wishes to tell. It does not seek your empathy or your understanding, but to recreate a permanent sense of alienation, draining the life out of Brussels and making the lively city seem like one of the worst places on earth.
We start with Medhi (Hamza Belarbi), a Muslim boy who likes playing in the park; that place is currently overrun with immigrants he cannot invite to play, as he doesn’t speak Arabic. Also, his elder brother is in trouble, owing a mysterious person money, forcing Medhi to make a difficult choice. Meanwhile, Alba (Alba Rohrwacher) is an Italian translator working at the European Union (moving the Brussels-is-a-hellhole theme to a broader point about Europe in general) who deals with loneliness and exhaustion. The third story is a little more opaque, telling the story of Wannes (Willy Thomas), an elderly therapist suffering from the loss of a loved one.
Linked together by shifting shots of the sky and the occasional black screen, these are people who feel let down by the city. They are often framed between walls and windows, as if they are in a prison, or merely observers in their own life. Intense zooms are used to replicate a sense of surveillance and paranoia, as if there is always someone watching for potential terrorists. Sometimes the camera even does a complete 360 degree turn, really hammering home the theme of entrapment.
These stylistic choices, although inspired, often come at the expense of character. While the film should be commended for foregoing a simplistic diagnosis of the city in favour of a moving, shifting, complicated text, we never really get a sense of what makes these people tick. Wannes may Skype his friend (boyfriend?) currently deployed abroad, but this seems to be just another statement about the War on Terror rather than a genuine relationship, while Medhi’s dilemma is resolved in a rather anticlimactic manner. Only Alba’s story, invigorated by the brilliant Alba Rohrwacher, appears to have any depth — not so much on behalf of the screenplay, but due to the intensity of her nervous performance. It’s ultimately worth watching for her alone.
Remarkably, the vast majority of funding for this film came from the Belgian state itself. Do they agree with this diagnosis, or are they simply committed to supporting art regardless of the message? If the city seems deeply unhealthy, at least their film industry doesn’t have anything to be paranoid about.
The 69th Berlin Film Festival runs February 7, 2019 – February 17, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.