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'Evolution' Film Review: 'Pieces of a Woman' Filmmakers Offer a Powerful Meditation on Trauma

Cannes 2021: Director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber explore the complicated identity of Jews in and around Germany after World War II

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Over its final week, the Cannes Film Festival will be screening a few films that qualify as anthologies of one sort or another: Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” (five discrete stories under one umbrella concept) on Monday, the anthology “The Year of the Everlasting Storm” (seven different directors tackle life during the pandemic) on Wednesday and, to kick off the mini-trend, Kornél Mundruczó’s “Evolution” on Sunday.

“Evolution” is, in some ways, the most unified of the trio; it tells three stories from three generations of the same family, using similar techniques to different ends to explore the complicated history of Jews in and around Germany from the end of World War II to the present day. Shot in only 13 days during the pandemic and assembled largely from lengthy, unbroken shots, it feels like a small, experimental movie, but it’s also a meditation on trauma that cuts deep emotionally.

“Evolution” is also the fourth film collaboration over the last seven years for Hungarian director Mundruczó and his wife, screenwriter Kata Wéber. Their films are dramatically different: 2014’s “White God” was a brilliantly dark fable about dogs taking over a city, 2017’s “Jupiter’s Moon” was an unfocused supernatural drama, and last year’s “Pieces of a Woman,” their English-language debut, a harrowing Oscar-nominated tour de force for actresses Vanessa Kirby and Ellen Burstyn.

Their new collaboration is Mundruczó’s eighth film at Cannes if you count shorts. It screened on Sunday in the Cannes Premiere section, a new area designed to showcase films from festival veterans whose work might normally be placed in the Main Competition section. Many of the films in the section feel like side projects for their directors, with Andrea Arnold and Oliver Stone represented by documentaries, and you could say the same about “Evolution,” although it is also a haunting and challenging exploration of identity and loss.  

The film’s three sections are named after characters, with the first, “Eva,” being the grittiest and most immersive. It begins with three men entering a dark room with cleaning supplies; shot in a boxy aspect ratio and unfolding in what seems to be a single shot, the men splash bleach on the walls and floors, scrub dirty surfaces and begin to pull long clumps of hair out of crevices and drains. Often as not, the camera doesn’t pan to the workers; it has a mind of its own, and the men walk into and out of the frame.

It’s never exactly spelled out, but the men are cleaning rooms at a concentration camp where Jews were exterminated. This section has the claustrophobic nature of “Son of Saul” and the dread and doom of a horror movie, although you can’t reduce these circumstances to a genre label. The sequence grows increasingly surreal and terrifying – there are clearly some stains you can’t scrub away – until the cry of a baby breaks the oppressive silence.

Pulling a child from the drain after this grueling sequence calls up unmistakable echoes of the opening childbirth scene in “Pieces of a Woman,” but in “Evolution,” this “birth” is stranger and more disturbing. What we see may provide a bit of hope in the midst of horror, but it’s impossible to treat it as anything other than a desperate illusion.

With a fade to black, the film shifts to a brightly-lit apartment in Germany for “Lena,” its second section. Taking place many decades after the war, it’s the story of a woman (Annamaria Lang) who visits her aging mother to ask for her grandmother’s passport. To get her children into a Jewish school, and to obtain reparations that Germany pays to Holocaust survivors and their families, it seems, Lena needs to prove that she’s Jewish.

The trouble is that the paper trail is deliberately deceptive: Lena’s grandmother had five different passports, all fake and most designed to show that she was not Jewish. (This is a detail from real life: Wéber’s mother really did have many fake passports designed to obscure her Jewish identity.) “We were Jewish when we couldn’t be,” Lena moans. “And now that we can be, we’re not Jewish.”

But her problem isn’t just paperwork; it’s also her obstinate mother, conditioned to never give anything to the authorities and to never appear to take advantage of the tragedy. The part is played by veteran theater actress Lili Monori, and it is a tour de force performance – more than half an hour in an uninterrupted take that is dominated by her searing monologue, spilling out decades of anger and pain and confusion that began, she said, when she was born in Auschwitz to a mother who had managed to hide her pregnancy.

Through all of this, the camera roams through the apartment, goes out the window, comes back in, moves around her head, fixes on her face and makes small adjustments; it’s restless, but Eva – yes, the same Eva that we saw in the opening section – is relentless, until this section too becomes more surreal and more horrifying.

The third section, "Jonas," is the longest, and the one set in the present day. The title character is a Berlin high school student, whose classes are canceled for the day because a lantern he’d brought in for a class project started a fire. He’s also grappling with where he belongs: His mother is Jewish, to be sure, but he doesn’t really know who or what he is. “You brought me here!” he screams at his mother. “You tell me who I am!”

There are hints of antisemitism, a tentative romance with a Turkish girl and an attempt to find some kind of grace note at the end. In a film that keeps returning to images of water, only in the final scene does that water seem to have any kind of healing power. But “Evolution” is less about healing than about haunting; it’s an odd, small and moving work that asks disquieting questions about identity after decades of trauma.  

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