Home Video Hovel- Romeos
Often when a film tells a tale from the point of view of a persecuted or minority (or both) point of view, it falls into a couple of traps. The first is being more concerned with appealing to its directly targeted audience than with making a good film. For example, this is why Tyler Perry’s films are so beloved by the people at whom they’re aimed and by almost no one else. The second, much trickier trap, is becoming consumed by the socio-political bedrock of its premise and becoming an “issue” film more than anything else. This is slippery territory because the film is usually in some way worthwhile on the strength of its subject alone but the manner in which the message is delivered can make all the difference. Sabine Bernardi’s Romeos keeps its wits and makes smart choices at most turns. It is an issue film secondarily. That its lesson takes a back seat to the characters and their story makes it all the more powerful.
Romeos tells the story of Lukas, a young German man who has relocated to the city of Cologne as a part of some German civil service thing that I didn’t fully understand but which isn’t the point anyway. There he meets and becomes infatuated with a man named Fabio (Maximilian Befort) and the two begin a tumultuous and often very passionate relationship. The hitch comes when Fabio realizes what the film has clued us in to since the beginning. Namely, the fact that Lukas was once called Miriam and is a female to male (FTM) transgendered man.
Rick Okon plays Lukas and he is Bernardi’s biggest asset, despite her already impressive talents. Though convincingly a man (because he is), he has just enough softness to his features to allow belief that he was born a woman. Given that this look would have to be a necessity, it is a terrific stroke of luck for Bernardi and for the viewer that Okon also turns out to be such a skilled actor. The fact that he is both internally and externally uncomfortable almost all the time is relayed by him in ways that are never overt but also impossible to miss. The way he sits, the way he moves and the way he talks are all symptoms of his desire not to be noticed most of the time.
Where Romeos really stakes its claim of individuality is when it decides, rightly, to explore Lukas’ flaws. It doesn’t do so periodically or directly. Instead, the unlikable aspects of him are a constant undercurrent that occasionally bubbles over. The film’s chief offering about the nature of someone like Lukas is to observe that feeling alone in the world, even when that feeling is justified, can turn a person into a narcissist. Those who do care about Lukas, such as his friend Ine (Liv Lisa Fries), are not involved in a mutually beneficial relationship. Since Lukas perceives his problems to be bigger than Ine’s, he gives no thought to her more mundane yet important personal struggles. Instead, he is constantly asking to be the subject of the conversation. Ine’s realization of this and subsequent backlash provide some of the film’s central conflicts. Lukas behaving this way and still remaining a sympathetic character is to the credit of both Okon the screenplay (also by Bernardi).
Stylistically, Bernardi employs a general naturalism that is not gritty or hard-bitten but is instead loose. It captures the feeling of being out of school, flush with freedom but still too young to have many responsibilities. These people have their lives before them and they are simultaneously exhilarated and terrified by that. It’s only when the film attempts more lush, cinematic gestures that it tips its hand. For instance, a scene wherein Lukas is watching a transvestite at karaoke and the lighting changes theatrically and we focus in visually and aurally on the singer does not contain the skill or commitment to make such a sequence work. It instead feels amateurish, borrowed from better films like David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.
Lukas’ story and the stories of transgendered people all over the world are worth your attention. Theirs is a minority class that is marginalized even by the minority class of which it is a subset. For that reason alone, Romeos is worth watching. Yet it’s also worth watching for the simple but immeasurable reason that it is a good film. That’s about the best thing one can say for it.