Nico is a measured film heavily steeped in realism in every sense of the word. From its opening shots, we are immersed in the title character’s world. Nico (Iranian actress Sara Fazilat, who also serves as producer and co-writer) is an empowered, confident, humorous young professional enjoying the blossoming of summer in Berlin, cycling joyfully around the city, confronting aggressors who aren’t similarly relishing the moment, making daily rounds to her adoring patients as an at-home caregiver, sharing a strong drink after a long day with best pal Rosa (Javeh Asefdjah).
From the start, there is a strong, heartfelt sense of community that supports and loves unreservedly, even when words don’t come easily. Nico is an integral part of that, at first exuding a strong sense of self, silliness, fearlessness and groundedness, in addition to true generosity, gentleness and compassion.
This is where the film takes a turn and we witness the incident that will sway the rest of its course. As Nico heads home after a day spent drinking and dancing carefree in a sunny park with friends, she finds herself confronted by a group of agitated white aggressors, who corner her for walking on the wrong side of the street. Nico pauses, toggling between fighting back and trying to deescalate the situation with silence and stillness. Neither tactic works and the group sets in, kicking her and screaming racial slurs. It’s a shocking moment of brutal violence in which Nico ultimately has no choice but to relent when escape proves impossible: she is helpless. Aligned with her point of view visually and aurally, we adopt her out of focus perspective from the pavement as she falls to the ground, before a blurred figure and ambulance come to the rescue.
Nico is naturally altered by the attack physically, emotionally and mentally. Her horrific bruising causes those who love her to cringe, serving as a constant visual reminder of her pain and the inexplicable hate that was directed at her body. Thanks to Fazilat’s performance and DOP and co-writer Francy Fabritz’s cinematography, Nico’s physical suffering is palpable, as is her mental and emotional scarring, as she lies frozen on the couch or walks the city streets with her hood up, ghostlike. Nico is frustrated by Rosa’s attempts to get her ‘back to normal’, to act like her former self and return to their once-comforting, dependable social routine.
There is now also a gulf between Nico and her elderly, mostly white patients, who see her suffering and anxiety and are distraught by it, but don’t know what to do or say to help ease Nico’s pain and to avoid offending their fiercely independent, competent caregiver. In keeping with its roots in realism, Nico also looks at the impact the attack has on Nico’s loved ones as she pushes them away, not knowing how to ask for help or what that help would even look like. That brings us to one of the most moving scenes of the film, in which patient Brigitte (Brigitte Kramer), sits Nico down at her table and labours to get her a bowl of soup.
Desperate to do something, get any sort of reaction, she prompts Nico to eat, pushing the bowl under her nose. Nico relents and takes a bite as the tears start to fall. It’s a moment of intense compassion -- despite all Nico does to cope without anyone’s help, she needs some looking after.
Presumably in an effort to take back a feeling of control over her body and reinstall a sense of physical strength and empowerment after the attack, Nico begins studying karate under a severe but kindly instructor, Andy (Andreas Marquardt). It seems to be the only space where Nico feels somewhat OK, where she doesn’t instinctively hide under her hoodie, anxious to disappear into her surroundings.
We see glimpses of the old (if inevitably changed) Nico in this context, as when she and Andy bask in the summer sun after class, Nico sprinkling them both with a watering can to stay cool. The training itself is gruelling, at times verging on humiliating, but Nico perseveres, talented, disciplined, seemingly savouring the calm that the training, its routines and the feeling of strength it provides. It is the place where her mind and heart can rest for a while as she throws herself into physical activity. It is empowering to go along for this ride with Nico.
As is in keeping with the rest of the film, her healing process and the filmmakers’ depiction of it is steeped in reality and handled with subtlety. We don’t learn about Nico’s response to her trauma through emotional displays or conversations. She is, in theory, OK. Although she is in immense emotional pain and mental turmoil, she is giving herself space to process and heal.
Part of Nico’s healing comes in the form of a budding relationship with Ronny (Sara Klimoska), a Macedonian immigrant working at a local carnival. There seems to be an immediate understanding between Nico and Ronny, a tenderness that seems like it might grow into a deeper connection. Ronny seems attuned to Nico’s vulnerability even as (or especially when) Rosa undermines it, insisting her friend is fine. But in one of Nico’s PTSD triggered flashbacks, she is horrified to recall that Ronny was present at the crime and uncovers the awful, selfish truth behind Ronny’s pursuit of Nico. Although Nico will come to accept that Ronny had her own reasons for staying silent and complicit, driven by her illegal status, this betrayal is difficult to process and comes as another nauseating, traumatic blow.
Beyond the subtle treatment of its subject matter, Nico is an intensely political film due to its ambiguity. The filmmakers have made a conscious effort to avoid any normative indicators of gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity, economic or cultural background and the like. Stereotypes are constantly undone and subverted. The only indication of Nico and Rosa’s background, for instance, is that they will occasionally slip into Farsi (Fazilat herself was born in Tehran but grew up in Germany).
Everything is handled as ‘matter of fact’, as star, producer and co-writer Sara Fazilat has described it. The subversion of these assumptions does not have to be discussed, because that’s not the argument the filmmakers are making: they are instead setting forth a depiction of the world as it really is, elaborating on the fluidity and diversity of the human experience, and all the beauty and pain it can entail.
Sara Fazilat is radiant as Nico, playing opposite a cast of professional and non-professional actors alike. She brings a lightness and humour to the film, particularly in scenes with her patients and with Rosa. It is an intensely physical performance and the depth of Nico’s anger, grief and fear emanates from the screen. Fabritz’s cinematography works harmoniously with Fazilat, using many a handheld, cinéma vérité-style close-up while not lingering too long on her eyes or face to convey all the emotion, but examining how Nico carries herself at different points throughout the film in equal measure, allowing us to swallow, for instance, her need to disappear into her surroundings, to become invisible.
Everything is handled with subtlety and a light touch, so that the subjectivity we experience in the handling of Nico’s brief flashbacks, for instance, isn’t overbearing, but instead enhances relatability at every turn. It’s the same with the film’s aural landscape, highly dependent on diegetic sound, which helps us sink even more deeply into this world.
Nico may receive some criticism for having less of an explicit conversation about racism and discrimination in Germany and around the world, but it is most effective in the relatability it gifts its audience, the alignment we get with Nico’s perspective and feelings throughout. As Konstantin Wecker’s protest song, "Sage Nein!", plays over the end credits, it sounds the alarm that we better start making changes now, because the rate of change is so frustratingly, tragically slow.
Germany, 2021, 75mins
Dir: Eline Gehring
Scr: Francy Fabritz, Sara Fazilat, Eline Gehring
Production: Deutsche Film & Fernsehakademie Berlin (DFFB)
International sales: UCM.ONE
Producer: Sara Fazilat
Cinematography: Francy Fabritz
Editor: Eline Gehring
Music: Zeina Azouqah, Doro Bohr
With: Sara Fazilat, Javeh Asefdjah, Sara Klimoska, Andreas Marquardt, Brigitte Kramer, Isidoro Fernandez Mompelier, Sabrina Tannen