Review by Sean Boelman
Recent years have seen a lot of period pieces about women discovering themselves in the face of oppression from the patriarchy, and they vary widely in quality. Stefan Jäger’s Monte Verità, inspired by a true story, falls somewhere in the middle of the pack thanks to strong production values but a script that seems all too content to settle for the minimum.
The film follows a woman who, dissatisfied with her bourgeois life and abusive husband, begins therapy with Otto Gross, a pupil of Sigmund Freud, and follows him to an idyllic retreat where she finds meaning in life. There are an abundance of interesting angles that writer Kornelija Naraks could have taken with this story, but instead, the movie follows a rather basic women’s liberation arc.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the film is that it takes too long to get moving. The title makes it seem like a majority of the movie will take place in the eponymous historic retreat, but it takes far too long for the characters to get there. And the conflict leading up to that point is the same abusive husband routine we have seen time and time again.
The film definitely wasted a lot of opportunity when it came to the photography elements of the story. One of the most resonant plot points involves the protagonist finding herself through artistic expression despite the forces that be telling her that photography is a “man’s trade”, but this ends up taking a backseat to a subpar love triangle.
Even when it comes to the romance storyline, the movie is less than effective. Neither of the romantic interests for the protagonist — the abusive husband or the manipulative psychotherapist — are particularly likable as a match for the character. And at multiple points, the character’s independence is scoffed at in a way that isn’t rebuffed.
It’s a shame that the script is so bland because there are definitely some very strong elements behind and in front of the camera. Jäger does a great job directing the film, with period detail that is immersive and utilizing the photography (when the script allows) in a way that is genuinely creative.
Additionally, the cast is very good all-around. Maresi Riegner is great in her leading role, giving a performance that is admirably nuanced and brings a lot of emotion out of a character that is shallowly-written. Max Hubacher and Philipp Hauß are also solid as the two male leads, complementing Riegner well.
Monte Verità is a well-made movie, but the script doesn’t have enough energy or originality to keep things working. It’s ultimately just another period piece that could have been much more compelling had it done something more unique with its premise.
Monte Verità screened at the 2021 Locarno Film Festival, which runs August 4-14.