"She made me discover something I didn't know about myself. She made me feel important...and became my shelter from this world."
It took me a moment to snap out of my Pulp Fiction haze when starting to watch this Italian import starring Maria de Medeiros, the actress responsible for one of my favorite moments in Quentin Tarantino's 1994 hit. To this day, I still recite "blueberry pancakes" with that cute-as-button accent to any friends willing to tolerate my pointless Fabienne impression (sadly, I can't come close to matching her equally adorable doe-eyed expression). Having humored myself enough after a few seconds, I was finally able to settle into this drama about three lonely people--all lost souls looking for an escape.
The film wastes no time delivering its inciting incident--while driving back home to Italy after a vacation to Tunisia, lovers Anna (de Medeiros) and Mara (Antonia Liskova) are stopped for a border check. When Mara can't find her passport, Anna checks the trunk--where she sees something that shocks her. She calmly closes it, then waits until they have re-entered their homeland before stopping the car and showing Mara her find: Anis (Mounir Ouadi), a young Moroccan who paid hotel workers to hide him in their car so he could sneak into the country.
The conflict quickly forces the couple's personalities--and problems--to surface. Anna is the kindhearted one who wants to please, always with a smile on her face; while Mara's temper belies an anger we soon realize stems from an emotionally abusive father now confined to a nursing home--and from depression over being stuck in a menial, dead-end job at a shoe factory owned by Anna's well-off family. The two aren't happy ("You never tell me important things," Mara says), which may be why Anna jumps at a new distraction--the chance to help Anis start a new life.
After being dropped off at the train station with some money, Anis has a change of heart and heads to Anna's home, where she lives with Mara. She lets him stay--and asks brother Salvio (Vitaliano Trevisan) to give the boy a job at the warehouse. That doesn't sit well with Mara, who becomes increasingly irritated with his presence (which has also slowed down their love life). She clashes with Anis, and soon feels even more uncomfortable after a social engagement with Anna's family--including a homophobic mother--doesn't go well.
Anis provides an escape for both women, who initially skirt around their lesbian relationship. Anis thinks they're sisters when he moves in, and tells both of them how important it is to get married and have a family ("You need a man, to make kids and a family"). He has his own tragic story--his parents are dead (a claim Mara doesn't buy), and no other friends or relatives are part of his life. Things begin to look up at the factory, where Anis quickly impresses Salvio with his work ethic. But when Anis discovers one of his co-workers is stealing shoes, he is forced to make an important decision.
Shelter Me unfolds slowly, revealing different layers of its characters along the way--de Medeiros and Liskova both shine in roles that aren't as one-dimensional as they appear at first. The social class difference between Anna and Mara produces the film's biggest tension, forcing the women to question what they want and who they are. Anis shakes both of them out of their comfort zones, giving us a window into some emotional extremes (on both ends) that propel the story to its conclusion.
The film navigates trickier waters toward the end, and the lead performances are strong enough to handle them. The story isn't simple--like the trio, this isn't a happy film, nor does it provide a tidy ending. You'll ache for all of them, and most likely you'll be left in thought--one key plot development is hinted at, providing a different lens to view the film through. And one character is given an interesting (and for me, unexpected) transformation, showing a surprising side that will leave you questioning things even more.
And that's one of Shelter Me's beauties--its ability to convey deep emotions that can change in meaning depending on which way you see the film and its characters. How your mind thinks and your heart feels--and not just theirs--is just as important. As in life, there are no easy answers here. But as the film tries to convey three sad and lost souls' need for love, escape and protection--a need we can all relate to on some level--you may learn a little about yourself in the process.
(And if you need some cheering up afterward, I'll be back before you can say "blueberry pie"...)
The screener disc provided for this review presents an anamorphic widescreen transfer, and it's an overall (and most likely intentional) drab looking affair. The colors lack depth, and some grain adds to the dark tone. Any changes in final product will be noted when the information becomes available.
The 2.0 Italian surround track works fine for the dialogue; don't expect any impressive effects. As with the video transfer, any alterations to the quality on the final pressing will be noted if available. Forced English subtitles are your only option.
Just the film's trailer, which ran before the film on this screener disc--something I hope doesn't happen on the final product. Some of the visuals are best left unshared.
This Italian effort about three lost, lonely souls searching for themselves--and an escape from ache--isn't always a happy watch, but it doesn't aim to be. It delves into deep emotional waters, and provides an interesting exercise in accessing how your mind thinks and your heart feels--leaving the character developments up to interpretation. Led by outstanding performances, Shelter Me is a frequently sad yet memorable study of human behavior, hinging on the need for protection--something we can all relate to on some level. But the slow story isn't neat and clean, possibly lowering the replay value for some; combined with the film's mood, you're best advised to Rent It.