Motherhood has been a source of inspiration for countless horror films and tales of terror. Pelican Blood might not strictly sit within the horror genre, but it will crawl under your skin all the same.
Director Katrin Gebbe’s first film, 2013’s Nothing Bad Can Happen, still haunts me to this day. It’s based on a true story about a young man’s death at the hands of a family who take him in and then torture him. That film’s long, cold look at the nature of faith shows the risks of believing in something without any evidence of support. Pelican Blood takes Gebbe’s sharp eye and focuses it squarely on motherhood.
Wiebke (Nina Hoss) runs a horse stable out of her family farm and is quite fulfilled in her life. The local police station boards her horses, and she helps train the cavalry for taking on protesters and distractions that could prevent them from being good police horses. Her adopted daughter, Nicolina (Adelia-Constance Ocleppo), is a good kid and they make a happy family. Wiebke wants to expand their love with another child. Raya (Katerina Lipovska) only looks like a charming, cherubic five-year old. After Wiebke formally adopts her from abroad, Raya quickly shows her true colors to her new family. She’s angry, unpredictable, and violent. Perhaps worst of all, there’s little hope of rehabilitation given her horrific past and abandonment issues.
But Wiebke refuses to give up. With all of her experience breaking horses, she’s the perfect mother to get through to Raya. She’s dedicated, loving, and persistent. As her work with Raya continues over the long months, it becomes clear that Raya’s dysfunction goes beyond some screaming fits, and she’s a very real threat to their lives and home. What is a mother to do?
Hoss’s performance as the committed mother is incredible. She brings empathy to a character who makes some tough and misguided choices, and lets us understand where Wiebke is coming from with each step and stumble. She’s distraught and confused, but never gives up on her child or her family. When it finally comes to the point of taking drastic measures, we’re right there with her as she takes some unusual paths to Raya’s future.
Stylistically, Pelican Blood is quite gorgeous. The horses and the stables are beautiful and seeing them go through the seasons gives us a sense of the march of time within the film. This is an exercise in showing us these changes, rather than telling, which is a good sign of expert filmmaking.
Pelican Blood is hard to watch at times, especially when it becomes clear that a mother’s love can only do so much.