Tracing gender structures from the womb to marriage, Normal shines a light on how gender is constantly reinforced in modern Italian society. Taking a panoramic view of the beautiful country, spanning from Milan to Rome, as well as from childhood to adulthood, Normal captures the absolute absurdity of gender norms with precise, thrilling clarity.
Pregnant mums train in the park. A factory makes pink plastic irons and boards for girls, fake work tools for boys. Boys race on mini-scooters, pushed on by their fathers. Adoring girls cry when they hug a YouTuber. Adele Tulli presents each image without any voiceover or judgement, as stark cuts between them explicitly set up a binary between the male world and the female one.
The preciseness of the images — starting with pregnant women exercising in a swimming pool to a marriage ceremony — create a strong sense of narrative, as if from the very start we are preconditioned to think in a certain way. Group behaviour is everything, and cinematographers Clarissa Capellini and Francesca Zonars expertly capture the way bodies coalesce into one almost ideological-looking mass. With one key exception, everything that challenges gender norms — drag artists, transgender people, or women wearing flannel shirts — is purposefully ignored. This is the heteronormative world, baby, and it’s terrifying.
For many queer people, or simply those who don’t want to play by traditional ideas of gender — i.e men who don’t mind doing the dishes or women who can change a lightbulb — Normal plays something like a horror movie. There’s the endless, disgusting pink things for girls, Muay Thai classes for boys, the pre-marriage class where women are told that they have to look after their husbands as if they are another child, and the shy young boy being told that if he wants a girlfriend he must be an alpha male. It all culminates in one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen in a documentary: an off-the-rails hen party, replete with penis cake and creepy male strippers.
For women, the horror lies in being seen as either a perfect mother or a complete whore. Priests lecture them to satisfy their husbands, while others in leather bras dance around motorcycles in full view of gawping children. Girls are approached in clubs by the beach, expected to be sexually willing, but once motherhood comes, they must also do all the cooking, cleaning, and care for the children. These stereotypes are pushed to such absurd lengths as if to force the viewer to reconsider their own patterns. Are we the directors of our own limited world?
While many elements of the film are specific to Italian life, especially some of the more fantastical imagery and the overbearing extent to which the Church plays a role in shaping society, Normal has a universal resonance. Coming in at only 70 minutes, the sheer rhythm created by these images, set to a synth-heavy score with thudding beats, creates a hypnotic effect. Credit must go for the editing team of Ilaria Fraioli and Elisa Cantelli for shaping so much diverse material into such a coherent statement. This is masterful filmmaking.
The 69th Berlin Film Festival runs February 7, 2019 – February 17, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.