Zurich Film Festival review: Becoming Giulia (Laura Kaehr)

“The road it takes is bumpy and it seems to take a detour, but its charismatic subject and its strong portrayal of an artist’s drive and how that affects one’s life give Becoming Giulia enough agency to captivate throughout its runtime.”

I missed my own identity.” One of the big taboos of motherhood is talking about the guilt of feeling that after giving birth you want at least part of your old life back, even if it is perfectly normal to feel this way. Trying to juggle taking care of a newborn with returning to your professional life is a struggle millions of women go through on a day-to-day basis. In that sense the story of Giulia Tonelli, prima ballerina of the Zurich Opera ballet and the subject of Swiss director Laura Kaehr’s debut feature documentary Becoming Giulia, is not unique. But the world of ballet is extremely demanding, one in which performers are expected to live and breathe their art to the extent that everything else is pushed aside. A documentary of balancing life and career, Becoming Giulia shifts halfway through until it can essentially be brought back, as its title suggests, to a journey of a woman finding and reclaiming herself and her ambitions.

At the start of the film Tonelli does what any young mother seemingly does, introducing her son Jacopo, at this point just a few weeks old by the looks of it, to her workplace. Nobody at the Zurich Opera has children, neither dancers nor staff, except for the company’s choreographer. Their sole dedication is to dance and perfecting performance. For Tonelli, her art now has to share space in her life with Jacopo, and she tries to make that work almost against the odds. She soon finds herself back in rehearsals for the lead role in Romeo & Juliet, while at the same time having to make her schedule fit around the care for a newborn. Her partner does his fair share, but Tonelli’s ambitions threaten to overcome her. At one point involved in three different ballets for the company, she also strikes up a friendship with British choreographer Cathy Marston, who invites her to help her set up an adaptation of The Scarlet Letter and whose work promises to give Tonelli the sort of mature roles she desires. But with demanding choreographers in Zurich breathing down her neck and a demanding little one at home, Tonelli might burn herself out.

As the film progresses the perspective changes. In one of the rare interview moments Tonelli laments society’s pressure on young mothers as it expects them to dedicate themselves to their child and put their professional careers on the back burner, something that is especially true of a conservative society like Switzerland’s. Why isn’t a mother allowed ambition, she asks. From this point onward we barely see little Jacopo reappear, as Tonelli plunges herself head-first into her work and her art. This is a jarring change of direction, as if Kaehr changed her ideas mid-film. Becoming Giulia becomes primarily concerned with the ballet dancer and less with the woman who combines career and motherhood, seemingly abandoning the trajectory it set out on and pushing the film into schizophrenic territory. This leads to the question of who the Giulia from the title is meant to be: the dancer, the mother, or both?

Becoming Giulia isn’t entirely clear about its answer, but it leans heavily towards the dancing side of the equation, supporting Tonelli by showing that women can indeed be more than just ‘mothers’ after giving birth, a strong statement against conventional thinking and role models. The added bonus is that Kaehr spends much time in rehearsal rooms, using her wide canvas to register not only the beauty of ballet but also the tremendous amount of hard work that goes into it. It is telling that the film has footage of only one on-stage performance, wanting to show not the beauty of success but the ugliness of the path to it. Giselle, Nutcracker, and various other pieces form the backbone of Tonelli’s journey to become who she really is, but in an odd way so does COVID, which makes its entrance late in the film. It gives the Italian dancer the opportunity to do some soul searching and figure out where her future lies. And it also allows for the return of Jacopo, by this time able to walk, as Tonelli and her partner are bound to home. The poignancy of the final scene, with the young boy clumsily hopping up and down juxtaposed with his mother rehearsing in the background, brings the film full circle. The road it takes is bumpy and it seems to take a detour, but its charismatic subject and its strong portrayal of an artist’s drive and how that affects one’s life give Becoming Giulia enough agency to captivate throughout its runtime.