Berlin 2016: Coma review

★★★☆☆
"Every day is the same," says one of the three women at the centre of Sara Fattahi's Coma, an intimate and personal portrait of life in Syria at the beginning of the war. A grandmother, mother and daughter (Fattahi herself) live together in a middle class house in Damascus. Grandmother has retreated into an arid world of repetitious religious observance - reciting her prayers and reading the Koran to the exclusion of everything else. Her daughter is worldlier: divorced after an unhappy marriage to a military man she makes endless cups of coffee, smokes her cigarettes and hustles for money to keep the family going.

The youngest, Sara, stays largely out of sight, tapping on a keyboard occasionally, struggling to write an email or a poem, or listening to the reminiscences from her mother and grandma. Initially the only entertainment comes from old movies played on the television and we find ourselves trapped watching an audience watch a film we might have preferred to see ourselves: an effect created by Abbas Kiarostami's Shirin to stultifying effect. However, the war intervenes and with it a renewed sense of urgency and solidarity. As shells explode nearby and power outages become a daily occurrence, the women at first seem to awake into the world. They talk about their memories of other bombardments, reassure each other and bemoan the fact that there is no man around to offer protection and reassurance.

The grandmother in particular seems to take to the war as something familiar. Stories can be told; worries dismissed; wisdom distributed. There are moments of warmth between the three women as they play cards with a visiting auntie and the family dynamics are all too familiar with mum exasperated at granny's frail grip on the rules and her daughter's mischievous cheating. The economy of necessity of low budget filmmaking means that we are for the most part confined to the apartment. This skews the film in the direction of the grandmother more than either of the other two women, who have lives outside of the apartment, encounters with other people, and an engagement with a wider society. The women pad from one room to the other, reflected in the polished furniture and the large mirrors that denote a relatively prosperous past. The view takes on a paramount importance as the devastation of the war can be glimpsed in a blown out window across the way, or a plume of smoke drifting into the distance.

This domestic, occasionally claustrophobic, minutiae is interspersed with flashbacks from old video of the dead grandfather and occasionally Fattahi will fiddle with the image, slow down the film or put in a jarring cut as if she too is getting a little tired of staring at the same walls and wants to express her own bravura or just think about something else. In an extended sequence, a television programme is rewound and so the war footage - and the war itself - reverses: explosions fold themselves back into unfired ordinance, wrecked house get back to their feet. It's a neat idea - one familiar to readers of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five also - and well-executed. But as the sequence continues Fattahi starts channel surfing and so the point wavers and loses itself in a distraction.

This dissipation is also evident in some of the most striking shots of the film as the director holds on for a good twenty seconds more than is really needed. Coma offers a glimpse inside a normal household during wartime, an ordinariness that is quickly disappearing underneath the drone strikes and Jihadi rhetoric. The desperation and pessimism are utterly justified without the film ever becoming truly dramatic. As in life so in war, nothing much happens for most of the time. It is fitting that when we final venture out of the apartment and into the world, it is only to visit a vast cemetery. This is the only escape.

The 2016 Berlin Film Festival takes place between 11-21 February. Follow our coverage here.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty

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