Hedda Gabler. Madame Bovary. Anna Karenina. Just three of countless stories titled after complex female protagonists from Europe. Their very mention carries the air of sophistication with which they’re praised, which itself carries that slight whiff of disdain for those who don’t “get” it (read: like it).
“Barbara” — both the film and its titular character — can appear similarly standoffish on the surface. Barbara (Nina Hoss) is an accomplished pediatrician from Berlin circa 1980, exiled to a small German beach town full of modest citizens. She refuses to speak more than she has to. “Barbara” won the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, and has only come to America in kinds of theaters that sell coconut water. Not surprisingly, the movie is just as quiet and contemplative as Barbara is.
But this extraordinary film requires and celebrates the will it takes to see past these decorations. In Barbara, you find a kindhearted romantic who’s lost the courage to risk embarrassment through love — in “Barbara,” a delicately moving story of said romantic.
Hoss disguises Barbara’s warmth just enough to make you wonder what’s beneath her cold exterior. Had you met her in person, though, you’d find it much too easy to quit wondering and simply deem her bitchy.
Small-time physician Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) resists that impulse. He persists through her deflections behind which a kindred spirit has cowered in the face of the Cold War. He demonstrates just how much work it takes to know and love someone.
Zehrfeld’s performance, in this respect, perfectly captures the difference between niceness and weakness. His big doe eyes and unassuming smiles speak to a courage gone unappreciated by disenchanted souls like Barbara.
The film wastes no time in its editing and composition. No establishing shots. No montages. Just a feast of beautiful real-time cinematography that occasionally lingers too long.
Which is to say that, like Barbara, “Barbara” isn’t perfect. But it deserves just as much a chance to be loved for its imperfections as you do.
Dive Verdict: ?????
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