Director: Eline Gehring (Germany). Year of Release: 2021
A woman riding her bike down one of those streets with cars parked on both sides. There’s only enough width for one vehicle, so the cars behind her are getting irate. As she carries on riding, the shouts and horns get louder. Eventually, she dismounts her bike and approaches the car whose driver was giving her the most grief. She smashes the doughnut that was in her hand on the car windscreen.
Nico is smiley for most of the time, but sometimes life contrives to get her down. She works offering care to elderly people – bathing them, talking to them, helping them to feel still human. But it can be hard work. And then there’s an intolerant society. Nico’s friend Rosa reminds her that they’re alone in a white world. When they’re on their own, Nico and Rosa speak Farsi, even though they are, in bureaucracy’s weasel words “fully integrated”.
Then Nico experiences an incident near the station. At first a woman bumps into her when walking past. Nico apologises, but the woman won’t let it lie. The encounter suddenly becomes more aggressive, and it’s clear that there’s a racial element at work. It’s not long before Nico is on the ground, being attacked by all of the group around her assailant, which ends up with her being admitted to hospital.
The physical effects of the attack are temporary, but it becomes clear that the mental repercussions are longer lasting. Where Nico previously smiled all the time, now she rarely looks happy. There are rare moments – such as when she and Rosa visit a shitty funfair and ride on the dodgems with Ronny from Macedonia, who looks after the shooting stall. But these occasions are exceptional, and for most of the time, Nico looks depressed, defeated almost.
Nico joins a karate club to learn how to defend herself. Cue multiple scenes of her either raising her arms to thwart attempted blows or just taking her instructor striking her with a stick. The classes have some positive effect, and Nico appears to be able to once more leave her house – for most of the time. But they also release a rage in her that she often emits to attack the people she loves, most often the long-suffering Rosa whose calls Nico starts to ignore.
Nico comes across Ronny again, and there is a strong sense that the pair may have a mutual attraction. Ronny walks Nico home, although it takes her out of her way, and there is clearly something that she needs to say. The audience is on tenterhooks for both young women, They clearly both have things that they need to share. Then a bombshell is dropped which would be a plot spoiler if I told you here.
Nico is a film that expects its audience to take much of the heavy lifting. Superficially, very little happens at all. We are left to observe the characters as they struggle to leap the hurdles that life puts in front of them. There is little melodrama, and few scenes to which we are expected to react strongly. Small things just happen, and if we don’t find them interesting, then we could be excused for wondering just what is the point of this film.
And yet, a lot here is precious. Partly because this is a film that shows us very normal people, people like Uz confronted by real problems. But there’s also something more. Nico is obviously deeply affected by her experiences, but unable to fully articulate either how she has been hurt, or what she needs to escape her suffering. The audience is offered no easy soap opera ending, we must just empathize and wonder how we would cope in similar circumstances.
The film stands and falls with Sara Fazilat, who does not just play Nico but seems to appear a dozen times in the end credits. She is co-writer, producer, and a number of other things which don’t even make it into IMDB. It is Fazilat who ensures that from beginning to end, we are concerned about what is happening to Nico and that we want her to survive and prosper.
Nico has also been made on a minimal budget, which I think, in principlem is a good thing. We see what we need to see, and nothing more. Whether it’s the seedy fair, the seniors’ home where Nico works or the bank of the Spree where she sits and chats with Ronny, these are authentic locations from which we get enough of a sense of place not to need any pyrotechnics.
It would be quite easy to watch Nico and think “What’s the point?” A woman goes through life, she gets a bit sad – traumatized even – but that doesn’t impact us much as an audience. There are no big car crashes, no loud scenes of catharsis. She just gets through life as best as she can. You might argue that we can get this at home and that we’ve come to the cinema to escape all this. You might argue that, but if you did you’d be a philistine who’s missed something special here.