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Sons (Vogter)

Motherly instincts and extreme violence collide to devastating results, in this Scandinoir prison drama from Denmark - in the Official Competition of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival


Prisoners deserve to be treated with dignity. And there’s nothing wrong with a little TLC. Fifty-something-year-old Eva (Sidse Babett Knudsen) provides male inmates with yoga, meditation and mindfulness activities. She is tough and firm, however avuncular, even a little motherly. Maybe that’s because her late son was once in prison, and she naturally misses him. One day, she requests that she is moved to the roughest part of the penitentiary, which holds the most dangerous and dysfunctional men of the rotten Kingdom of Denmark. Is she perhaps seeking a challenge? Or does she have an ulterior motive? At first, it isn’t clear why proactively asked for the transfer.

Dealing with such inmates – mostly rugged, muscular men with anger in their eyes and who refuse to acknowledge a mere “good morning” – isn’t dissimilar to walking barefoot on a bed of burning embers. Eva becomes strangely fascinated with Mikkel (Sebastian Bull), a man so violent and unpredictable that he should never be left alone with anyone. He previously killed a fellow inmate, Eva is informed. Mikkel has a demonic figure, quite literally: deep eyes, raised cheekbones, protruding forehead, drooping lower lip, tattooed body, a huge scar across the abdomen (presumably the consequence of a near-fatal fight), and a loud, feral hurl that can be heard in neighbouring Sweden. Eva watches a naked, chiseled Mikkel on CCTV. Is she perhaps physically attracted to a man who embodies the very opposite of her values and principles?

Mikkel’s deranged, gratuitously violent ways are vaguely reminiscent of Trevor in Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain (1983). The difference is that Bull’s physicality a lot more threatening than Tim Roth, while the British actor is a lot more energetic. Scum (also directed by Clarke, and in the same year) also comes to mind, with its hellish prison environment where blades and fists are the strongest currency (both films include a very disturbing suicide scene). The difference is that the Danish prison is a lot more humane and less corrupt than the British borstals.

The second half of this 100-minute Scandinoir, viewed mostly from the perspective of the fallible law agent, is a little less violent yet no less punchy than the first one, Eva’s relationship with Mikkel becomes a cat-and-mouse psychological game, as the motherly prison ward puts herself in a very vulnerable position. The movie wraps up with an unexpected twist, one that brings closure and some vague comfort. Sons is not, however, a movie without flaws. Eva’s arc is incomplete: we never see the yoga instructor in action, instead being left to imagine what her mindfulness lessons might comprise. Plus, some narrative developments in the second half aren’t plausible, killing off any possibility of realism. In other words, this is an auspicious prison drama devoid of social commentary. Not Alan Clarke, however a decent Netflix or BBC4 pick.

Sons just premiered in the Official Competition of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 22-02-2024

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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