Berlinale 2019Pedro (Marco Nanini) is an elderly gay nurse who’s obsessed with classic movie star, Greta Garbo (hence the film’s title). He’s also very protective of his friend Daniela (Denise Weinberg), a trans nightclub performer who’s been struck by kidney failure. There’s no room in the hospital for her, so Pedro decides to free up a bed by sneaking out a wounded man in handcuffs, who was due to be questioned by the police. Thus begins a tale of intrigue, sex and ambiguous intentions.

GRETA is the cinematic debut for Brazilian director, Armando Praça, and he’s clearly been careful not to waste this opportunity. Almost every shot is striking; there’s a subtly unsettling moment where the wounded criminal is stood in the background, visible through an ajar door, staring into the middle distance at the audience. There’s also the sex scenes, which have a careful balance of light and shadow, in a way which almost resembles an oil painting.

But it’s the film’s star who most captures our attention – though not always likably so. Pedro is a man of contradictions; he seems annoyed by how much he has to do for Daniela, but she didn’t ask for his help. In fact, she regularly insists that Pedro leave her to her own devices. It’s also his decision, and his decision alone, to take the wounded man back to his house and care for him, even asking for sexual favours in return. Yet when the police are closing in, he quickly reverts to insisting that he “wants to be alone” (a famous quote of Garbo’s which he repeats throughout the film).

The fact is that Pedro’s behaviour is not that of someone who wants to be alone. It’s of someone who drags people into his life, then blames them for his frustrations. In that regard, he’s reminiscent of Joe Caputo, the pathetic, sexually pent-up warden on ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. But Nanini adds to the contradictions, by playing him as softer than a man like Caputo. Even in Pedro’s darker, more aggressive or coercive moments, there’s a gentle femininity in the way he carries himself.

There are moments when he’s perhaps too off-putting, and Praça uses a lot of long, quiet, lingering shots that can make Pedro’s company feel stifling. But overall, you’re compelled by the mystery of what makes this man tick. And the film conceals that mystery within its artistic cinematography, in a way that’s equal parts frustrating and admirable.