There’s much talk these days of microaggressions: words and gestures of disrespect toward others, particularly those of other social groups, that betray prejudice even when everyday or unintentional. It’s a term that sounds almost scientific, though as a unit of measurement, it’s frustratingly inexact: how many microaggressions add up to plain, violent, not-so-small oppression? How many seemingly accidental slights must one endure before crying malice? And if it makes you feel unsafe, can any aggression be called micro? In Kosovan-born director Visar Morina’s fine-cut sophomore feature “Exile,” these are the considerations that drive a mild-mannered Kosovan expat to the brink of madness in staid German suburbia.
Slicing into its protagonist’s psyche with surgical finesse and discomfort, this queasy-comic character study pulls off a subtly perilous balancing act: It’s painfully exact in dramatizing the quiet xenophobia he experiences on a daily basis, even as the mounting possibility of paranoia tilts its point of view. Without trivializing its political tensions, this ambiguity suspends “Exile” anxiously in a realm between Michael Haneke’s studies in domestic terror and Ruben Östlund’s savage comedies of masculine insecurity. The film’s highly deliberate pacing and claustrophobic air of melancholia, while both assets, might cramp its commercial prospects somewhat, though a long festival run will follow appointments at Sundance and Berlin.
The first sign of hostility toward Xhafer (Mišel Matičević) is not a veiled one. Arriving home from his high-pressure job at a chemical engineering firm, he finds a dead rat strung to his front gate — a physical manifestation, it turns out, of his greatest phobia. There’s no sign of who left it there, but given the abundance of lab rats at his office, Xhafer is swift to conclude that it’s a racist threat from a colleague, putting him on the alert for further signs of workplace bigotry and harassment. Whether it’s being left off an office email chain, one-upped in meetings by his co-worker Urs (Rainer Bock), or repeatedly misidentified as Croatian instead of Kosovan, every mild affront becomes a potential harbinger of deeper hatred, gradually chipping away at Xhafer’s placid demeanor.
Is he overreacting? His German wife, frazzled Ph.D student Nora (a typically superb Sandra Hüller), certainly thinks so, and the cracks in their relationship widen the longer his persecution complex is fueled. When it’s not an excoriating anatomy of petty-to-vicious workplace politics, “Exile” works as a brittle yet bruise-tender portrait of a marriage slowly drained of empathy, as both spouses come to see themselves on separate teams of one.
Morina’s lean, Rohrschach-like script itself avoids taking sides, while viewers’ own baggage may steer how they see the rationality or otherwise of Xhafer’s reactions. Somehow chilly and sympathetic at once, “Exile” understands how acts of kindness and violence alike can equally reinforce an immigrant’s outsider status. A subplot centered on Xhafer’s passionless affair with an Albanian office cleaner (Flonja Kodheli) cruelly twists the knife another quarter-turn, suggesting how relentless xenophobic bullying can seed equivalent callousness in its victims. Though the film evokes its corner of white-collar German society with a very particular kind of antiseptic blandness, it’s easy to imagine this story unfolding similarly in picket-fence America or Brexit Britain.
Matičević’s remarkable performance is an exercise in pinched discipline, as Xhafer’s unraveling state of mind registers in the slightest of disruptions to his taut, stoic mien. His impassive presence works in stark, complementary contrast to Hüller’s more openly expressive, exasperated Nora; they may speak mutually fluent German at home, but when it comes to body language, they’re at constant cross-purposes.
Cinematographer Matteo Cocco is either in Xhafer’s corner or simply cornering him, holding him close in the frame throughout as if to amplify his paranoia. In the office scenes, multiple dreamy, winding tracking shots through a seemingly limitless warren of corridors distort our sense of Xhafer’s reality, while production designer Christian Goldbeck is in on the game too, coloring interiors in bilious, seasick yellows and oranges that appear tinted by panic. The dimmest, most airless tableaux are reserved for the film’s domestic drama — including two striking sex scenes composed of disconnected, almost dehumanized body parts — where the protagonist’s sense of self sometimes seems to melt into the walls. This is quivery sensory cinema that paints complex themes in space and light, sometimes with the camera itself as aggressor: questioning and scrutinizing its protagonist to the last, exquisitely irresolute shot.