As in Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s 2009 film, La Pivellina, modesty is the key to The Shine of Day, and sometimes to the detriment of audience involvement and focus. A portrait of lives lived in isolation and unspoken loneliness, the film shuffles between a handful of characters, while focusing principally on an actor splitting his time between Vienna and Hamburg and his long-lost uncle who shows up for a surprise visit. In not forcing any grand dramatic encounters between the various figures they observe, Covi and Frimmel allow the sense of distance between the characters to emerge organically, echoing their alienation in the frigidity of the film’s tone and making any moments of human connection all the more surprising.
Still, while it’s hard to fault the correctness of the filmmakers’ approach, it still makes for what feels like almost too distanced a project. Obsessed with his art, actor Philipp Hochmair (played by an actor of the same name) spends all his time alone, poring over scripts, only coming alive on the stage, and only showing any sign of human sympathy when he helps out his harried Moldavian neighbor. When his estranged uncle, Walter (Walter Saabel), shows up, the younger man welcomes him, but hardly allows the encounter to alter his schedule or his level of involvement. As Philipp flits between Austria and Germany and Walter pops in and out of his life, the filmmakers simply follow the two as they go about their business, which in the case of the older man, a retired circus performer, consists mostly of tagging along with his nephew or wandering off on his own, looking to connect with other people and break through his natural mode of self-imposed solitude. Only gradually do submerged tensions between the leads reveal themselves, but even then in modest and surprising ways.
For Covi and Frimmel, dramatic encounters aren’t where character is revealed; rather it’s in moments of offhand conversation or unexpected gestures. A monologue by Walter, shot in close-up and in a single take as he recalls his days growing up in an orphanage, underlines that character’s state of perennial sadness, as do a series of striking shots of him observing a frigid sea port with ice floes drifting purposelessly in the water. A conversation between uncle and nephew about them both pursuing their own brand of freedom reveals the irony that that search has only led to greater isolation. And nicely measured scenes of Walter babysitting Philipp’s neighbor’s kids suggest the possibility for human interaction missing from the old man’s life. Only a last bit of half-hearted, vaguely ridiculous narrative business pushes things simultaneously too far and not far enough, proving that it’s sometimes better to stick to a loosely conceived portrait than try to force structure onto it at the final moment.