First Work of Mercy

Friday 23:00


Flavio Yuri Rigamonti | 
2020 | 
Germany | 
11:13 mins | 
Alpha has finally reached Europe. After a long and difficult journey, the young refugee, hungry and exhausted, glimpses a small village’s bell tower. A hope soon dashed. Alpha wanders through the rural village in search of help, but no one seems to see or hear him. His only company are the pangs of hunger and a cat...


by Cole Diment

Flavio Rigamonti’s First Work of Mercy tells us the story of a young refugee named Alpha as he traverses the hostile terrain of central Europe. The film uses a distinct black and white long take style, echoing a distinct European tradition of film-making including the likes of Bela Tarr and Michael Haneke, the latter of whom deals in ethical interactions as First Work of Mercy does.

The opening images of the film signal a contradiction at the heart of European identity. Through fencing and bars we see black hands and bodies checked and frisked. At the same time, an aria plays from a piece of classical music. The latter signals a conception of identity within high and civilised culture, the other a base and violent de-humanisation of others. The extent to which we see these as mutually exclusive or rooted in the same culture determines our ethical reaction to these images.

The use of a rural European setting similarly showcases the contradictions of European-ness. When entering town, Alpha walks through seemingly barren fields. When he enters town the geography and architecture seem hostile. Barriers fence off roads, barbed wire impedes escape. The infrastructure of rural Europe is a long cry from the city, showcasing the disparities of economic and social class that are elided in right-wing rhetoric that seeks to exclude people like Alpha. Wealth income is obscured in favour of a treatise of whiteness.

If anything is to be taken from First Work of Mercy it is the relationship of Alpha to the gun toting elderly villager. The relationship is not one of instant recognition. Neither does it flower into a friendship. Rather, the two seem indifferent. With this being said, the elderly villager offers resources, a home and compassion in the form of food to Alpha. The type of relationality here is one that is very intriguing: it is one that does not impress onto the other a definition and neither does it us the other as pre-text for self-definition. In the latter case, even in left-wing politics the figure of the migrant is used as a basis for politicising and generating a humanistic vision of Europe. In this relationship it differs: neither character impresses definition on the other but seem to encounter each other in a visceral sense, as something different yet recognisable. For all the rhetoric of humanity that surrounds the migrant subject, such rhetoric seems to fall away here. Instead of fully formed human subjects we see ghosts and half glimpsed humanities breaking through the veneer of a corrupted world.