Review: Cows on the Roof
by Marta Bałaga
- In his latest documentary, crowned as the winner of the Trento Film Festival, Aldo Gugolz gets ready for a Swiss mountain mystery
If making goat’s cheese in an isolated alpine hut, far from the madding crowd, sounds like a dream come true, then director Aldo Gugolz wastes no time crushing it in Cows on the Roof [+see also:
interview: Aldo Gugolz
film profile]. His protagonist, Fabiano, still believes in the old way of life – raised by free-spirited parents, that’s pretty much all he has ever known. But the job just keeps getting harder and the future grimmer, especially as he is about to become a father himself. And then there is the question of a certain corpse.
Found in a remote valley in 2017, the body belonged to a Macedonian worker who hasn’t even been reported missing and also happened to work as a milker on Fabiano’s farm. As the investigation continues – and accusatory fingers are pointed – darkness descends on his world. It has probably been there already, not that anyone would notice with all that mist, threatening to take over whatever he was trying so hard to keep afloat. And yet, unlike local news crews, Gugolz seems much less interested in the actual mystery, concentrating on the people who, despite everything, just need to keep working. They are visibly tired and mostly unkempt because, it is stated here, once you start making cheese, you are busy the whole day. No wonder there is little to no time left to wonder about the whereabouts of yet another illegal worker.
That being said, once the discovery is made, the fear stays with Fabiano, slowly eating him up. It’s the not knowing that makes it all worse: not knowing if the man he once knew simply slipped and fell to his death, or if there was something more sinister at play. Still, it would be hard to pinpoint what Gugolz’s focus is here. Does it have to do with fighting for this alternative lifestyle, even though, ironically enough, it actually seems to be sucking the life out of people? Or the realisation that sometimes it’s just too late for a change, too late to move to one of these towns where “everything is grey” and one can’t really breathe any more?
Either way, he clearly embraces his role as a therapist to everyone involved, including Fabiano’s no-nonsense partner, Eva. Sharing their biggest fears about money issues, debt and alcoholism, not to mention the pressure to have a “normal” home once the baby is born, they seem to appreciate his presence – a rare feat for a documentary maker. More clarity or a brisker pace would have been welcome, but it’s still an atmospheric little movie, already noticed at Visions du Réel and, more recently, at the Trento Film Festival. It shows a place that’s both beautiful and so damned unwelcoming, forcing its inhabitants to sometimes just shrug it all off, repeating the refrain that has marked their entire existence: “That’s how it is.” And the sooner you accept it, the better.
Cows on the Roof was produced by Switzerland’s Rough Cat and was co-produced by fellow Swiss outfit revolumenfilm. Its international sales are handled by Antidote Sales, and its local distribution is overseen by First Hand Films.
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