Picco (2010) Review

First published on Snipe for London Film Festival 2010 //

Director Philip Koch
Country Germany

When you watch Picco you get the feeling that former-critic and one-time film
student Philip Koch knows his stuff. In his feature debut follow-up to the award-
winning short Lumen, Koch skilfully blends the theory and artful subtlety that
seems to have informed his Nouvelle Vagary from criticism to filmmaking.

Starting out like a German rendering of Audiard’s hit Un Prophète, the story
drops us into the claustrophobic jail hell of a youth detention centre where
we’re immediately introduced to our four leads. Chatting over the small table
centred in their room is Marc (Frederick Lau), the most vicious and unrelenting
in his tyranny and Andy (Martin Kiefer), the somewhat intellectual rebel who
finds it easier than most to express himself in terms of his ejection from civil
society. They excitedly discuss what they’ll do when they get out, often hinting at
a return to the life of crime, a theme the film deals with throughout. Also in the
cell is the depressive, sometimes suicidal Tommy (Joel Basman) and refusing to
join in the conversation is our antihero ‘picco’ (meaning newcomer), Kevin, who
soon gets wise to the fact that involvement in the debasement of prison life is
unavoidable and inevitably devastating.

We’re steadily introduced to the quiet violence of prison life in sequences
that drip with authenticity, afforded by the film’s setting in an actual disused
detention facility. At first, Kevin struggles to adapt to the confined life in the
borstal, psychologically and physically hectored by his cell-mates and the other
prisoners, he struggles through the first days; they watch on and laugh as he
cleans his teeth with a soiled brush; they steal his smokes; feign sympathy by
giving him incorrect answers in class; call him ‘faggot’, and so on.

The terror slowly builds. At regular intervals, long tracking shots follow our boys
one by one around the yard in moments that recall the impending doom of much
classic horror cinema, The Shining being one prime example. At the end of one of these steady-cam shots, Kevin finds refuge in another prisoner who finally gives
him a cigarette. He quickly becomes friends with the feeble-looking Juli, who is
just another victim of constant abuse. When the others find out Juli was picked
up for hustling, Kevin must choose between his forsaken friend or acceptance
into the main group, a process during which he is repeatedly asked: “Are you a
victim or what?” And this is the reality of the enclosed world that Koch reveals, a
world where you’re either a victim or a tormentor, but actually you’re both.

Through this narrative device Koch builds up more and more layers of meaning
in this seemingly straightforward story. The walled-in world of our inmates
comes to reflect the outer, and vice-versa, with Kevin coming to the elusive
realisation that individuals find themselves picked-on because every other
detainee is out only to protect and help himself. But he cannot stand by his
beliefs of dignity and selflessness, and this he realises when he fails Juli, doing
nothing when he is raped in the washroom. After this, Kevin thinks he can
become more assured in his values, we see him spurn the influence of his fellow
bullies, with occasional violent that bursts like an abscess, until finally, in the last
third of the film, he surrenders to his selfish survival instinct and becomes what
he despises.

As the subject matter demands, Picco is difficult viewing. With echoes of the
same disturbing events that make up Alan Clarke’s work on similar subjects
(Scum?? and Made in Britain), you know that you’re in for a harrowing ending. And the final act is a long, unsettling one.

Tommy becomes the centre of a prolonged session of abuse, physical, sexual and
emotional, with his three cell-mates deciding to force him to suicide by hanging.
They cut him, beat him, violate him with a toilet brush, before tightening the
noose around his neck and baiting him into finishing it. But he refuses, forcing
one of the others to do it for him.

Despite its affecting conclusion, Picco is not merely another exercise in
disturbing storytelling; it has an original visual style that demonstrates Koch’s
eye for both a filmic reference and a unique shot of his own. In one particularly
effective visual quote, we see a marijuana-filled boot swinging from window to
window, conjuring Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour. The cold greens and greys
that colour the many memorable shots work to invoke a permeating sense of
alienation in the boys’ isolation that survives through the film’s entirety. And
these subdued touches certainly make for a promising writer-director debut
coming out of Germany at a time when Hollywood-looking rom-coms and tepid
dramas seem to be order of the day, amongst some otherwise admirable work
such as Koch’s.

Also published on: Spike Magazine

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