WHEN YOU ARE pushed so far from your comfort levels that a voice from your belly cries out with everything you’re worth and reforms you, it’s a kind of rebirth. You may have witnessed this in John Logan’s searing play Red about Mark Rothko. You will rediscover this in Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden’s beautiful film Becoming Mona which features on this year’s European Film Festival in South Africa. Due to the ongoing pandemic, the entire festival is available online and most of it without cost from 12-22 November.
Magnificently cast, with an eye for both the physical resemblance of characters and sheer skill, this work tells of a young girl and the emotionally needy people into whose midst she is thrust, by dint of her birth, her reticent nature, her emotional wisdom. From the very first film still, the directors have your full attention: it’s a mix of exquisite lighting, astonishingly strong cinematography and deep nuanced performances.
Mona is a child of about eight (played by Olivia Landuyt) when life as she knew it takes a traumatic, messy direction she could not possibly have anticipated. You’re offered a tiny glimpse into her life before these changes and you realise you’re not sure how stable they were then, either. But when the rollercoaster of her father’s marriages and dalliances and the destructive secrets of her stepmother are thrust on her plate, she becomes the stable factor in a world full of narcissists.
The story is told with brilliant succinctness that in turn slows down time and speeds it up, but never loses that silver thread of clarity. Divided into clear chapters, the work sees Mona growing up (the adult Mona is played by Tanya Zabarylo). It reflects on those patterns of narcissistic need on other levels. She’s a playwright and has theatrical friends who lean on and threaten the borders of rationality and containment, recognising her inherent ability to give them what they lack.
But more than all of this, both the child and the adult who portray Mona have the kind of potent inner beauty that US film critic Mick Lasalle describes in his foray on the beauty of French actresses. Specifically a European film idiosyncrasy, it is about celebrating a character’s features with a rich and candid sense of authenticity, blending character with presence.
In short, this is an astonishing work which captures the discomfort of childhood in a way that makes you unable to look away, but fear what may happen next. Featuring several rebirthing images and metaphors, the work is about the courage you need to follow your own heart and the complexity of how you may be restrained in doing so. It lifts off beyond pragmatics in a denouement which is at once liberating and wild and is a tonic of a work to behold.
Easily, this is the defining moment (so far) of this year’s European Film Festival. It resonates with the energy and clarity offered by the child in the work Proxima, but more than offering a story of stoicism and fortitude, brings you a courage that you can imbibe.
- Becoming Mona is directed by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden and features a cast headed by Valentijn Dhaenens, Wine Dierickx, Tijmen Govaerts, Olivia Landuyt, Stefan Perceval, Tom Vermeir, Greet Verstraete and Tanya Zabarylo. Written by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden, it is produced by Jeroen Beker and Sabine Veenendaal and features creative input by Niels van Koevorden (cinematography), Lot Rossmark (editing), Leonie Luttik (casting), Elsje de Bruin and Danielle Schilling (production design) and Manon Blom (costumes). In Flemish with English subtitles, it is part of the 7th European Film Festival South Africa, screening online and without cost from 12-22 November 2020.