Locarno 2021 review: Luzifer (Peter Brunner)

Peter Brunner’s Locarno competition title Luzifer boasts considerable pedigree behind the camera with acclaimed Austrian director Ulrich Seidl listed as producer and Veronica Franz, who wrote most of Seidl’s fiction films before making a name for herself as a director with impressive 2014 chiller Good Night Mommy, billed as associate producer. While the involvement of these names will help this dark and slow tale of an unusual exorcism gain some traction, the end result is a mixed affair whose striking central idea is not fully developed. This is a well-made horror film with a notable lead performance from the consistently reliable Franz Rogowski, but it too often descends into obvious religious symbolism and pointless provocation.

Luzifer takes place in a picturesque location with gorgeous mountain views surrounded by constant fog. The provincial setting has a mysteriously medieval quality, with all contemporary luxuries seemingly absent from the lives of its very few inhabitants, including a devout mother named Maria and her mentally disabled son Johannes. This idle life is interrupted when a tourism project threatens the isolated existence of the mother-son duo. Suddenly drones and helicopters start circling around the mountain, repeated phone calls are made to convince the mother to sell her property, many trees around the region are marked to be cut down soon. Usually in a scenario of this kind most viewers would be inclined to root for Johannes and his mother against the destructive interference of the ruthless corporation, but Luzifer is far from a simplistic environmental parable with obvious victims and perpetrators. Maria is an extremist who defines religious faith as a series of violent punishments and complete seclusion from the outer world. Her relationship with Johannes can be seen as abusive, with unhealthy rituals and a strange obsession with what she considers to be the “devil” occupying the bulk of their daily routine. Maria’s alcoholism and the countless tattoos that cover her body both hint at a traumatic past before her turn to religion, while Johannes’s deceased father is mentioned in several unsettling scenes. In short, Luzifer complicates how the audience may perceive the protagonists and their surroundings, with something unexpectedly eerie and sinister present in every frame. Even Johannes, who is initially shown to be a kind and pure soul with a strong attachment to nature, later becomes the culprit of a grisly act, and a shocking development significantly alters how viewers are likely to see the young man.

This is a fertile set-up with multiple dichotomies: genuine religious faith versus dangerous extremism, innocence of a child-like man against the evils of the modern world, the moving bond between a mother and her son contrasted with the great harm they inflict on each other. However, Brunner is more interested in extended sequences of torture and familiar Christian iconography than any of these potentially complex themes. Luzifer includes multiple images of crucifixion and a lengthy “cleansing” scene that turns into a painful execution, but fails to offer any substantial ideas about zealotry, modernization, or family ties.

The German-language canon of exorcism movies already includes Hans-Christian Schmid’s remarkable Requiem (2006), which picked up multiple awards at the Berlinale and launched the great Sandra Hüller’s screen career. Similarly to Luzifer, Schmid’s film uses a harrowing exorcism story to expose societal ills and follows seemingly ordinary people who find themselves confronted with supposedly supernatural events. But while Requiem is marked by Schmid’s measured direction that prioritizes character development and sophisticated commentary about religious fanaticism, Luzifer disappointingly goes for sensationalism and an excessively stylish approach without much thematic depth.

Rogowski delivers a committed performance in a thankless role and manages to appear equally naive and menacing, regardless of how ridiculous Johannes’s actions may get. Brunner’s ability to sustain a sense of unease is impressive, with the ace sound design and cinematography contributing greatly to the overall impact of the film. But despite these strong elements, Luzifer is an ultimately unsatisfying viewing experience whose strong atmosphere cannot overcome its narrative and thematic shortcomings.