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The word is a powerful tool that offers precise communication, as well as removal. But cinema is not about the word, it's about the scene. Matthias Glasner's The Free Will removes many of the words, and most of the padding that allows viewers a cushioned safety zone, leaving us to see, experience, and feel the pain and drama on screen in a way that forces us not to fall for cinematic tricks and clever writing.
The Free Will is the story of a rapist, Theo (Jürgen Vogel). However, instead of merely discussing his crimes and moving on, or revealing a carefully edited flashback, we're served the full, brutal force of his crimes. Much of the first half hour is a detailed account of one of his rapes -- no voiceovers, no chance for removal -- just the cries of his victim as he grabs her, savagely beats her, and sexually assaults her. It's a horrific scene to watch, and something that should definitely be missed by those with their own personal assault triggers, but this scene does serve a purpose. It makes rape real -- more than a word, and something you cannot ignore, no matter where the film takes you. It's not a removed crime like Kevin Bacon's portrayal of pedophilia in The Woodsman, where it's easier to sympathize with his character since the crimes are off-screen. We see Theo's crime, feel it, and know that what comes isn't just a simple love story.
Yes, this is the story of a man who is sent away for rape, and once he's released after almost ten years, tries to find love and live a normal life.
After being released from a psychiatric facility, Theo enters a sort of halfway house and begins to reintegrate himself back into society. It is not an easy path for the man, but things become easier when he meets Nettie (Sabine Timoteo). She's the daughter of his boss, a victim of unspecified abuse. Together, the two are awkward, wary, and reserved. But in time, they each become the person the other needs. Nettie offers Theo a healthy relationship with a woman, while Theo gives Nettie an acceptable security that comforts her.
But this is no simple love story, and their relationship is only part of what's really going on. Theo struggles to keep his dark side in check, and through the slow, steadied camera, Glasner continually makes you wonder if, and when, Theo might crack. No matter how much the two can leave their problems in the past, they're a part of who they are, and will inevitably rise to the surface.
The Free Will is a hard film to sit through. It's well over two hours of slow, carefully balanced scenes, silence, and the terror of anticipation. It's almost too much, but at the same time, it beautifully captures all sides of the story. Theo has done some horrific deeds, images that are burned into our brains as well as his, and as much as he moves on, those scenes are right there, begging to be revisited. It makes a love story difficult. However, between the violent memories and the impressive performance from Timoteo, The Free Will is able to bring up the question of what happens after. The film never answers this, but it does challenge you to face the scenario.
With such serious subject matter, it's no surprise there's not a large selection of extras to choose from. However, there is a commentary with Glasner and Vogel -- a discussion that covers how they felt and approached the controversial opening, as well as further thoughts and production details for the whole of the film. It's a measured journey in subtitles, but worth the time if you're curious about their motivations. There is also a critical essay written by Time Out New York critic David Fear.
All in all, The Free Will is a difficult film to watch, to stomach, and to sit through, but it's a story that will make you experience and think about what is playing on the screen, rather than just be entertained or moved by it.