Berlinale Review: Mammalia (2023)

It’s enough to give the trailer for Mammalia a quick watch in order to get a sense of what an otherworldly experience it is going to be. This is Sebastian Mihailescu’s second feature and it highlights the Romanian director as a remarkable experimentalist.

The plot is straightforward – a man goes looking for his partner, after she disappears. In spite of its obscurities, Mammalia is easy to describe narratively and fairly easy to follow, even in its more abstract developments. But describing it goes very little towards experiencing it, which is the frame of mind with which you should approach the movie.

Shot on film, this immediately conjures the ethereal quality of its visual compositions. There are about fifty scenes, which on average stretch more than a minute, and they cast a hypnotic spell on the viewer, aided by a striking musical score.

But what is it really about? Variety called it a “gender satire”, which is a label, I guess. You do get a clear sense that it has something to do with our understanding of masculinity and patriarchal roles. It is bound to trigger, because it points to the fear of demasculinization. At the same time though, it feels like a voyeuristic exploration that isn’t rooted in ideology. As an ad agency would put it, it’s not cinema, it’s a feeling.

Having seen Mammalia at the Berlinale, I had the chance to hear insights on how the movie came together. It proved a fiercely fluid shoot, defined by a limited number of takes and many last minute improvisations. The locations influenced the end result as much as the initial script did and the occasional meandering scenes include stories that emerged talking with extras or technical crew. This openness is an expression of generosity, which, to me, is the first thing we need in order to make room for any meaningful conversation.

You’d think this shouldn’t work, but it does, because the movie inhabits its idiosyncrasies. Whatever you might feel about what Mammalia means, it is first and foremost a visually enticing experience that commands your attention. 8

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