Locarno 2021 review: Brotherhood (Francesco Montagner)

Brotherhood, an Italian-Czech co-production entirely set in a picturesque provincial town in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a deceptively simple documentary about three brothers whose father is sentenced to two years in prison. Director Francesco Montagner opts for an observational style that refuses to spell anything out for the audience, but attentive viewers will undoubtedly find political and social layers in this seemingly uneventful family portrait. While there is clearly a more ambitious and interesting film to be made about the hot-button issues Montagner is grappling with, Brotherhood is well-positioned to enjoy a decent run in documentary festivals as well as on small screens around Europe.

The key topic here is religious fundamentalism, specifically radical Islam, but Montagner keeps his focus completely on the mundane experiences of the three brothers. Despite its macro-level implications, Brotherhood operates as an intimate chronicle from start to finish. Following a mysterious visit to war-torn Syria, Ibrahim, a strict Imam who lives with his three sons in a small farming town, is sent to prison on terrorism charges linked to his extreme religious views. Montagner’s approach to this major event is surprisingly casual. No one in town seems unsettled by this terrorism connection, nor is anyone protesting the sentencing of their Imam for such a serious offense. Life goes on as usual, with the shepherds taking care of their animals, children going to school, and manual laborers searching for daily assignments to get by. It gradually becomes evident that this is not a documentary about radical Islam at all. Instead, the main question Montagner raises in Brotherhood is one about healing. How can the three brothers (Jabir, Usama, and Useir) use this forced separation from their father to distance themselves from his dangerous influence? Is it possible for them to find a new path in their lives and discover who they really are?

Even though the film maintains the same low-key observational tone throughout and does not utilize any indicators of passing time, the footage actually covers almost five years. Therefore it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that the protagonists will undergo a notable transformation over the course of Brotherhood. Montagner suggests three different trajectories (one for each brother) as the trigger for such change, but the most striking aspect of the film is the surprising lack of any progress. One brother devotes himself further to religion, another one considers going to Germany in order to find a job and struggles to make ends meet, while the youngest one spends most of his time in school, with education offering him a possible way out. But regardless of the paths taken, everyone ends up where they started, with the father’s release from prison restarting a cycle that was only briefly interrupted.

Brotherhood offers several interesting ideas about religious faith, provincial life, masculinity, or healing and progress (perhaps their lack, to be more accurate). But despite the complexity of its central themes, this is a very modest and occasionally repetitive film without any stylistic flourishes or creative interventions. Montagner films the brothers and their rural surroundings in a naturalistic, fly-on-the-wall manner. Resembling similarly constructed documentaries by masters like Frederick Wiseman or Gianfranco Rosi, the film also avoids using voiceover narration or interview footage. Montagner himself is absent from the screen, with most of the running time devoted to monotonous tasks carried out unhurriedly in the midst of nature. This choice is admirable and infuriating in equal measure. On one hand, Montagner’s ability to tackle complex problems through a non-judgmental, respectful microcosm must be appreciated. But at the same time, it is rather disappointing that many thorny aspects of such a topical issue are simply omitted. How can terrorism and religious fundamentalism exist in such a peaceful, idyllic environment in contemporary Europe? What role do social, economic, and political institutions play in dealing with this ongoing crisis? Which substantial conclusions can be deduced from the extremely limited set of experiences and perspectives presented here? Brotherhood is well worth watching for a wide range of reasons; however, its refusal to deal with any of these challenging questions leaves the viewer somewhat frustrated.