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Jesse Eisenberg stars as a confused Uber driver and father-to-be in John Trengove's bizarre cocktail of dysfunctional masculinity and freaky cultism - from the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival


Both Ralphie (Eisenberg) and his heavily-pregnant partner Sal (Odessa Young) stem from a broken family. Yet neither such complicity nor the prospect of a new addition to their family injects much joy into their relationship. The young and vulnerable man finds more pleasure in the gym, particularly in front of the mirror, and in the company of those of the same gender. The future isn’t particularly promising, either. Ralphie barely scraps a living by driving snappy passengers around Syracuse (a mid-sized city in New York state). Prospects are so meagre that he sells the mobile phone left behind by a child passenger in order to raise cash for his partner. The lady is unimpressed about the origin of the money.

A small, all-male cult, aptly named Manodrome, lures Ralphie into their closely-knit circle. The members are mostly men of around his age who call themselves “Sons”. They are under the purview of Dad Dan (Adian Brody): their formidable elder switches between kindness and menace with the agility of a fundamentalist preacher. They live in a large mansion with abundant wealth. Despite not labelling themselves as a religion, the group carry out strict initiation rituals and eerie ceremonies, including some sort of spiritual cleansing closely resembling an exorcism. There is no explanation of how/where the cult originated and very little on what their doctrine entails. Members are required to remain celibate and to cut ties with their families (particularly the females). They are extricating themselves from a dangerous “gynosphere” (an adorable misogynistic neologism, and the perfect counterpart to the film title).

The topic of male initiation rituals is no stranger to John Trengove. In 2017, the South African director made Wounds, a film about two men who become romantically involved during a Xhosa coming-of-age ceremony.

Hapless Ralphie becomes increasingly despondent, torn between his family duties and the newly found, testosterone-fuelled world. Dad Dan and his “Sons” have very effective persuasion and conversion techniques. They shower him with presents and promises. Ralphie begins to break down, and what comes out isn’t particularly beautiful: a toxic mixture of rage, sexism and homophobia. He unleashes a series of violent attacks on various people who accidentally cross his path. His behaviour is erratic, his targets inconsistent, his objectives unclear. At times it is impossible to say whether he is imagining or indeed carrying out the actions, as his mind become increasingly fractious (and so does the movie narrative).

At a taut 95 minutes, this psychological drama strives for darkness and tension. Scarce lighting and dark walls provide the film with a gloomy touch. The jarring music score blends accelerated, frenzied strings with creepy chanting. The objective of South African director John Trengove (who also penned the script) is to create a sombre, repulsive and objectionable portrayal of masculinity. He does succeed. On the other hand, he fails to create a remarkable movie. Manadrome is is just too conceited in its ability to examine masculinity, and its confusing plot gets lost in desperate search of a more profound, philosophical meaning. It tries to make a lot of statements (about toxic masculinity, misogyny, oppressed sexuality, religious absurdity, insanity, etc), but ends up saying very little. The outcome is a an elegant, at times intriguing, and yet hardly relevant movie.

Manodrome is in the Official Competition of the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 18-02-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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