(Böse Zellen)

Directed by Barbara Albert. 2003.

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Manu (Kathrin Resetarits) cheats death when she is the only survivor of a plane crash returning from a vacation in Brazil but meets her fate six years later in a head-on auto collision while coming home from a disco. The driver of the other car, teenager Kai, (Dominik Hartel) is uninjured but his girlfriend Gabi (Nicole Skala) is left paralyzed and he must deal with feelings of guilt and remorse. In Free Radicals, Austrian director Barbara Albert recognizes that everyone is interconnected and that even in the midst of chaos, structures and patterns exist as she explores how the lives of people in a small Austrian town intersect following Manu's death. The title of the film refers to unstable molecules that react quickly with other compounds as they attempt to capture the needed electron to gain stability. Like the free radicals in the atom, the characters seek connection but find themselves weak and alone, dependent on others for their self-esteem. 

Though set in Austria, the world the characters inhabit seems very familiar. It is a world of casual sex without commitment or joy (graphically depicted a la Dumont), vacuous TV programs that trivialize and exploit human emotions, shopping malls filled with fast food outlets, scratch and win tickets, and promotional giveaways. In this milieu, the only thing that is not for sale or giveaway is satisfaction but the characters fight hard to find it. The film explores the lives of friends and relatives of the deceased girl and how they are changed by Manu's death. Manu's husband Andreas (Georg Friedrich) works at the mall and has sole care of their young daughter Yvonne (Deborah Ten Brink) who has physical and emotional problems as a result of the accident. Manu's sister rants against capitalism at the mall but can only maintain dysfunctional relationships with broken men. 

Manu's brother Reini (Martin Brambach) is a shy science teacher who lectures about chaos theory, fractals, and the Mandelbrot Set and forms a tentative relationship with an African girl who works at a cosmetics shop. Manu's best friend, Andrea (Ursula Strauss) is a teacher at the school Yvonne attends and soon begins a relationship with Manu's husband Andreas and there are other subplots. Each protagonist has a burden they must deal with but they do have inner resources and some discover that before they can be with others, they have to be able to be with themselves. Kai is rebuffed by his girlfriend after the accident but goes on the TV talk show Forgive Me to ask Gabi for forgiveness, then hooks up with Patricia (Desiree Qurada), an overweight teenager who stands up to bullying at her school. 

Free Radicals is a dark film but it is lightened considerably by moments of compassion as well as exuberant musical sequences such as friends singing along with Aha's Take On Me, Patricia dancing to the 60's song San Francisco, and a stirring rendition of the Moody Blues Nights In White Satin by a church choir. It is also an ambitious work that is not afraid to show alternative ways of thinking and does so without condescension. For example, therapy is shown not via the stereotypical psychiatrist hero but as psychodrama in which the participants act out various roles, and, in a scene that is normally fodder for cinematic snickering, the friends make a serious attempt to contact Manu through a Ouija Board and the sequence is depicted in a positive light. 

Albert seems to be aware that the universe is multi-dimensional and at times her camera shoots from above giving us the sense that Manu or someone else is looking down and guiding us. There are perhaps too many characters and parallel stories that threaten to overwhelm us, but I identified with them and their struggle to find purpose in their lives. Free Radicals is not a perfect film but it is a rare oasis in the desert of cynical and violent films and a harbinger of good things to come from a director with style and a personal vision.


Howard Schumann
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