Rarely do first-time directors rivet you in your theatre seat, tears welling in your eyes, surrounded by sobbing theatre-goers. Not since The Mission has such a thing happened to this movie-reviewer. Yet, brand-new director Rudiger von Santos' first movie does just that.
A Monolith Pictures release, von Santos' Death by Moonlight tells the powerful tale of two young Spanish girls who are separated from their parents on a camping trip in the Dolomites. The two plucky children (played with remarkable maturity by Thérese Pilon and Maria Salazar) have to contend with bears, exposure and the freezing cold as they wander aimlessly through the wilderness.
The film is the most-beautifully shot movie to come out of Europe in years, which is saying a lot. The sweeping panoramas, which one would traditionally expect in a movice of this sort, are accented by daring fly-bys done in negative and slow-motion. There's a shot of the famished girls trying to catch a wounded bird which is tragic unto itself--and the cinematography of the bird struggling to escape spliced with graphic images of the girls turning feral as they gobble the blood-soaked bird--will haunt you for weeks.
Based on Pedro Luis' underground classic Morte para Bueno, the translation from novel to film is seamless. If this was an American film, it would certainly contend for an Oscar for cinematography next year. Alas, this movie will likely wallow in obscurity--which is a tragedy given its sheer luminosity and genius.
Not to ruin the ending, but it must be pointed out that scenes towards the climax are extraordinarily graphic, even for modern cinema. What the girls have to do in order to survive--the sacrifice one has to make for the other--is as disturbing a scene as any in recent memory. Viewers should be advised in advance not to bring children to this movie or to cover their eyes right after Salazar's character utters, "I love you, sister." Despite the gore, the ending is poignant and touching, leaving even the hardiest viewer with a lump in his or her throat.
All in all, well worth watching, if an emotional roller-coaster with a very un-North American ending.
Death by Moonlight opens April 19.