Pentecost, May 2010. On the edge between night and day, a traffic accident dooms the life of a young cyclist. He is the only child of a famed writer, who is triggered by his son’s death to write a ‘requiem novel’ for a boy he feels he abandoned and betrayed by not being there for him enough, especially at that crucial moment. Catharsis through writing, a literary in memoriam to rest the soul. But whose soul, that of the father or the son? The novel is a success, becomes a bestseller, and as such things go these days, the bestseller becomes a film. That film, Tonio, has been chosen as the Dutch entry for next year’s Academy Awards, leading to the odd situation that people half a world away will now learn the life story of a boy whose father wrote down that story to work through the grief of losing him.
The novel is structured as a mise en abyme, equivalent to what is known in cinema as a film-within-a-film: we follow the writer in the process of writing the novel, through the writing of the novel. The film loses this extra layer, since it is Van der Oest making the film, not A. F. Th. van der Heijden, the novelist, and she is far too smart to introduce him through banal voice-over or any such trickery. It would needlessly complicate a film that attempts to capture the essence of the novel, a father-son relationship in which the father feels he failed, and to describe the indescribable sorrow: parents surviving their children.
Adri (Pierre Bokma, in outstanding form) is a successful author. One lazy Sunday morning, he hears his wife Mirjam (Rifka Lodeizen) cry out. Two police officers have come to fetch them, as their son Tonio has been taken to hospital in critical condition after an accident. That precarious balance between hope and fear soon moves to the latter: Tonio doesn’t make it through surgery. A numbness falls over Adri, as he and Mirjam try to grapple with their loss. The ever-present bottle doesn’t offer a solution, so all they have to cling to is an attempt to reconstruct the few days of Tonio’s life since they last saw him. Tonio, a budding and talented photographer, did a photo shoot with a girl three days before his demise, and the girl’s name becomes the search for a possible nascent love. As they try to dig deeper into the life of their son, Adri realizes that to get to know his son better, and to keep him forever close, is to write a requiem for him. His search for the details of Tonio’s last days becomes an obsession, and after watching the CCTV footage of the accident (obtained from the police), his auteurial voice comes alive, as he frantically tries to alter the final moments of his son’s life to save him, to make up for failing Tonio too often. This is somewhat akin to what Paul Greengrass did in United 93, another catharsis through reliving, when the passengers storm the cockpit, and for one brief moment film history makes you believe that they are going to save the airplane in the nick of time. They don’t, of course, and Adri’s realization that he cannot change his son’s fate either is the final emotional blow he has to absorb, but also the first step on the path to acceptance.
The strength of Tonio is that it approaches its subject matter without a trace of sentimentalism by imbuing its characters with an inwardly directed grief, instead of turning their hurt into a spectacle. Adri and Mirjam are in a state of stunned shock, accentuated by the muffled sound design and slow camera movements, sparsely interjected with moments of deep pain, often triggered by the smallest mementos of Tonio. The brunt of the work is placed on the actors’ shoulders, and both Bokma and Lodeizen are on top of their game. Especially Bokma manages to embody the numbness, confusion, and quiet defaitisme in body language and few words: this is a completely defeated man, trying to make sense of it all and failing. Lodeizen has less to work with, as her Mirjam is essentially a supporting character (albeit an important one) in the life story Adri is creating for Tonio, but she leaves an impression nonetheless.
This is mostly because in the first act of the film (and less frequently later), Van der Oest intersperses the story with flashbacks to happier family times, which gives the actors a chance to act beyond sad and sorrowful. The juxtaposition of a taxi ride to the hospital on the day Mirjam is going to deliver baby Tonio with the grim ride in the police car to another hospital to face Tonio’s death is on the nose, but the director makes it work through excellent use of light and dark, as well as differences in sound design for pre- and post-death scenes. Some of the visual shorthand depicting the final night of Tonio’s life is easy to miss without having read the novel, as are character motivations in scenes that are cut short, but these nitpicks are overcome by Chris Peters’ gentle and convincing debut as the title character in his last hours. Elsewhere, editing and camerawork closely mimick Tonio‘s main character Adri’s state of mind as he moves from numb chaos to grim defeat, and on to calm determination. Tonio is a difficult novel to adapt, but writer Hugo Heinen has managed to stay away from the at times (understandably) hagiographic tone of the novel, focusing more on the father and his grief than on the son. As such, it accurately captures the process of loss and reluctant acceptance felt in the novel, but becomes less of a requiem to Tonio, resulting in a film that is oddly more and less devastating at the same time, but can stand on its own.