Sleeping Sickness is full of stunning visuals and frustrating ideas.
SLEEPING SICKNESS (Ulrich Köhler). 88 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (March 30). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNN
Ulrich Köhler won the Silver Bear at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival for his assured direction of Sleeping Sickness, and with good reason. He packs mundane scenes with meaning and composes visuals that never fail to put their message across. Unfortunately, the film's many finely drawn moments don't add up to a completely satisfying whole.
Pierre Bokma stars as Ebbo Velten, a German doctor running a hospital program in Cameroon that treats an epidemic that's no longer a threat. Ebbo knows this but balks at returning to his native land. People treat him like royalty in the Third World, while in Europe he's just another white guy.
Ebbo's time is up when another doctor, Alex Nzila (Jean-Christophe Folly), arrives to evaluate his program. Alex happens to be black, and the local Africans treat him with disdain despite the fact that he's French. Both doctors occupy a void between continents, belonging to neither.
Köhler takes the intellectual high road, using his characters as allegorical figures to serve an unsubtle debate on neo-colonialism. Both Ebbo's and (especially) Alex's personalities remain undefined, so the film's themes, though food for thought, never resonate emotionally.