Locarno 2021 review: No One’s with the Calves (Sabrina Sarabi)

An idyllic town in rural Germany provides a bright backdrop to an otherwise drab coming-of-age story in Sabrina Sarabi’s No One’s with the Calves (Niemand ist bei den Kälbern). Premiering in Locarno’s “Filmmakers of the Present” competition for emerging directors, this overlong drama is unlikely to travel far despite a remarkable lead performance from Saskia Rosendahl. The young actress, coming off an unforgettable turn in Dominik Graf’s masterful Fabian: Going to the Dogs (which dazzled the Berlinale audience earlier this year), appears in practically every scene and manages to make a familiar character arc feel somewhat fresh for a while. However, Sarabi’s screenplay simply lacks the plurality of ideas or the psychological insights that are needed to sustain a two-hour feature film.

Christin’s life is unsurprisingly monotonous, even suffocating. When first we meet the young woman, she is looking for a ride back home in the middle of a wilderness, but it’s clear that what awaits her in the farmland belonging to her boyfriend’s family is not much more exciting than her barren surroundings. Christin is trapped in a loveless relationship with limited future prospects, spending her days carrying out routine farming tasks. Her boyfriend’s parents are unwilling to approve anything she does (they keep bullying Christin for her choice of clothing, for example) while her own alcoholic father merely adds to her burden. A slight possibility of excitement emerges when Christin meets Klaus, an older environmental engineer who offers her a ride early in the film. She accepts his offer even though it actually means a substantial detour for her, and a brief but passionate affair begins between the two. This could mark Christin’s discovery of herself as a sexual being or make her realize how restrictive her current daily routine really is. However, Sarabi is more interested in depicting the provincial milieu than in exploring Christin’s evolution as a character following her encounter with Klaus.

Most of the running time is devoted to repetitive daily chores, which is a risky choice that Sarabi cannot quite pull off. The director deliberately avoids dramatic highs in an effort to fully capture the sleepy, languorous rhythms of the small town. But making a film about boredom while keeping the proceedings cinematically interesting and innovative is a challenging task. Sadly No One’s with the Calves too often descends into bland European miserabilism and lacks the creativity or bold formalism that could elevate the inept screenplay. The shaky handheld camerawork and the absence of a musical score merely contribute to an all-too-familiar sense of naturalism rather than a more radical brand of minimalism.

The film’s most valuable asset is undoubtedly Saskia Rosendahl, whose subtle performance adds emotional depth to mundane scenes that would otherwise offer little psychological complexity. Christin is not a very articulate character, nor is she given much to do beyond milking cows, walking around, or changing her clothes countless times. But Rosendahl conveys Christin’s frustration, longing, and hope through subtle changes in her body language, making every glance, hesitant smile, and small gesture count. The most memorable scenes of the film feature Rosendahl as her character explains her desire to experience city life or have an apartment of her own.

It is mildly interesting to observe such a modest, old-fashioned way of life in a region located between two major urban centers, Hamburg and Berlin. The sticky, empty, nonchalant small town seems almost suspended out of time, completely isolated from the hustle and bustle of these neighboring cities. Obviously, such a place is not a very welcoming environment for a young woman like Christin, which is a major part of the critique this sophomore feature is trying to develop. Unfortunately, No One’s with the Calves fails to develop any of these potentially interesting elements and offers a thin, disappointing variation on a familiar coming-of-age template.