Monday, January 28, 2013

My Sister Maria (2002)

I expect documentaries to take a position on some issue, and then to support that premise with filmed footage. Of course, I'm aware that the filmmaker is in no way obligated to present both sides of a story. Take Michael Moore, for example. His Bowling for Columbine is an entertaining film that starts with the tragic Columbine high school shooting and becomes a diatribe promoting gun control. It's a position that I don't agree with, and in the film I think Moore does a lot of sly staging and comparing apples to oranges. Yet it is still one of my favorite documentaries. He took a position and presented it in a compelling, albeit one-sided, way.

I wish actor Maximilian Schell had done the same thing in this documentary about his sister, actress Maria Schell. Maria Schell had a brilliant career in European films, finally winning a Best Actress award at the Cannes film festival. Hollywood came calling soon after, and she made several Hollywood movies. I've seen a handful of those -- The Brothers Karamazov with Yul Brynner, Cimarron with Glenn Ford, Voyage of the Damned, and Superman. Maria was a beautiful and gifted actress.

But this film My Sister Maria that her brother Maximilian has written and directed is a wreck. It purports to be a loving look at the life of his gifted sister. Yet it paints a picture of an addled old woman who had a stroke and sits around her home in Austria watching her old movies and spending money that she doesn't have. Very Sunset Boulevard, in fact. Many aspects of this later period of Maria's life are elaborately "re-staged" -- if they are true to begin with.

And therein lies most of my frustration with My Sister Maria. I don't believe it for a minute. I think it is some kind of elaborate ruse by Maximilian Schell to offer this unflattering look at an aging actress well past her prime. If it isn't, then Maximilian is cruel and exploitative towards his sister.

Here is why I think this movie is a put-on: First, Maria doesn't seen all that demented to me, nor does she seem to be showing much physical effect from a bad stroke. Secondly, there are plenty of "re-created" moments in the film, such as a double for Maria falling down in the snow while walking and then a cut to the real Maria's face. Thirdly, I don't buy that the cameras just happened to capture Maximilian finding out about his sister's dire financial straits so he then jets off to sell an expensive investment painting to cover her debts. That makes Maximilian seem heroic in Maria's story, and certainly appears self-serving. And lastly,  Maria burns down the family house in the movie's climax? Please -- that's pretty unbelievable. And re-staged, of course.

I don't have a reason for Maximilian creating this cinematic deception, unless it is his revenge for him having to take care of his sister. I was hoping to see a realistic portrait of the life and career of a talented actress. Instead, I got this drivel which seems to be a fictionalized account of the end of a talented actress's life. I can't understand why Maria, if she isn't demented, would have agreed to go along with this hogwash. (And how demented could she be when she was able to attend the premiere of this film three years before her death?)  Film clips of Maria's movies are haphazardly interspersed throughout the film. She is luminous in those clips, but the rest of the film is neither flattering or factual.

A fictional documentary is nothing more than a routine movie, and My Sister Maria is a bad movie. It's so bad that my esteem for Maximilian Schell has deteriorated. This portrait of his sister is unkind and unnecessary. Grade: D+ (credit given for the clips of Maria's movies). Note: The film is in German with subtitles.

I watched My Sister Maria via Netflix Streaming on January 21, 2013

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