Cinema without borders: Mutt- Facing his past

This weekly column, the writer explores the non-Indian films that are making the right noises across the globe. This week, we talk about Vulk Lunglov-Klotz’s Mutt.
A still from Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s debut feature, Mutt. (Photo | IMDb)
A still from Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s debut feature, Mutt. (Photo | IMDb)

Of the many life hacks, a common one is about not looking back, living in the moment and moving the only way possible: ahead and into the future. But even though you might move on, does the past ever let go of you? Can you set yourself free of what you once were? Isn’t the idea of who you are today and what you could become tomorrow rooted in your yesterday? Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s debut feature, Mutt, grapples with these questions in a compassionate, affecting and relatable way while underscoring life as a constant negotiation, an ongoing journey back and forth in time. Set in the bustling New York City, it spans the course of 24 hours in the life of Fena (Lio Mehiel) as his forsaken past comes calling.

He has altered the course of life entirely, having moved on from being Fernanda to becoming Fena. But three people and relationships that he had almost left behind are thrust back at him, forcing him to manage them, and his own self, anew. At one level, the film deals with the complexities of transitioning. The finer details and nuances of Fena’s everyday life also reflect our broader human struggles for getting accepted for who we are. It’s about a common pursuit of bonding with others and having a shared sense of belonging while holding on to who we essentially are. And that is never easy.

The young filmmaker’s triumph is in keeping things beautifully regular. There is no heightened drama, sensationalism or sentimentality in the world he creates. The film moves on to normal, lifelike conversations, arguments and fights between people who are reconnecting after a long time. The three meetings also lend a defining structure to the film.

A night encounter with the boyfriend is followed by a daylong rendezvous with the sister, leading on to a late evening and wee hours catching up with the father. All fit in Fena’s 24-hour routine, all marked with a distinct sense of “weirdness”, a simultaneous awkwardness and ease, distance and intimacy. All three people have unresolved grudges against Fena and are nursing old, festering wounds. The sister mistakenly assumes that Fena walked out on her, and left her stranded to be at the receiving end of the whims of a mercurial mother.

The boyfriend and father, like most people, don’t allow and accept change and hold Fena in a freeze frame. All are ignorant about what Fena really wants, the physical and mental transformation in him. Right from the very first sequence and the distant shot of Fena’s troubled face amid friends, Mehiel internalises his contradictions and carries the weight of his predicaments in his physical presence. It’s a remarkably heartfelt and fierce performance that encompasses the pain and scars of making a life-altering decision. Fena’s identity question gets doubly weighty with the added multi-racial dimension, of his roots being in Chile. Incidentally, filmmaker Lungulov- Klotz is himself a trans person of Chilean-Serbian origin who grew up in Chile, Serbia and New York.

Chile, as pointed out in his film, is where the gender roles are clearly segregated— men have responsibilities, women apparently don’t—yet the country offers his protagonist a lovely gender-neutral name—Fena—to opt for. According to Lungulov-Klotz, Mutt is about this in-betweenness. “It’s a film about being caught between two worlds, whether that’s race, gender, nationality or sexuality,” he says. Mutt did not quite have an auspicious start at the Sundance Film Festival with the jury having to walk out of the world premiere screening because of a malfunction in the open captions.

But the US Dramatic Special Jury Award: Acting, presented to Mehiel, and the Special Mention thereafter in Generation 14Plus category in Berlinale has catapulted Mutt into the best of 2023 list. And the film’s journey has only just begun.

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