A coming-of-age film with a twist, Zen in the Ice Rift (Zen sul ghiaccio sottile) takes you into the mind of a trans adolescent, but in a slightly different way than your average teen flick. Using overwhelming visuals and impeccable cinematography, Margherita Ferri’s motion picture successfully distances itself from other projects of its genre, and brings a whole new mode of storytelling to the table. Showing its viewers the challenges that come with unconditionally being and expressing oneself, the movie’s artistic vision is worthy of praise at this year’s Venice Film Festival edition.
Maia Zenardi (Eleonora Conti) is an introverted sixteen-year-old who is biologically female and lives in an unknown mountain village in a regional park from the Italian Apennines. Between the harassment from school classmates, an unstable relationship with his mother (Fabrizia Sacchi) and big ambitions to make it in the national ice hockey team, Maia is struggling internally. There is only one thing that is certain for him – being a boy. Playing on the male team, his protective wear has turned into a shield from the outside world and an escape. But this sport is not Maia’s only refuge – the popular and conventionally attractive Vanessa (Susanna Acchiardi) is also slowly becoming his close friend and partner. Under the nickname “Zen”, the protagonist has to face cruel and degrading bullying from malicious schoolmates, all of whom badger Maia for being a lesbian and looking more masculine.
Zen in the Ice Rift (Zen sul ghiaccio sottile) does not attempt to impress through its plot, but rather by its execution. The narrative line is fairly straightforward and unoriginal: a trans teen is bullied for his seemingly different sexual orientation. Moreover, its major themes – discrimination, abuse and gender identity have already been extensively covered by many other films. What is unique and enticing about Ferri’s project is how it relays this story to its audience and the artistic tools it employs in the process. For instance, the opening scene creates a framework of both external and inner stillness, depicting the main character’s silent contemplation of the forest surrounding him. The gesture of flipping the viewer can be seen as showcasing the protagonist’s relentless desire to be authentic at the cost of fitting in, as well as foreshadowing their struggle with being male, but trapped in the wrong body.
Ferri attempts to bring characters that exist on the fringes of society in the spotlight, but does so in a way that directly illustrates their internal dimension. As such, the film is rife with breathtaking landscapes and nature-based imagery that visually engrosses the audience in the protagonist’s internal world. The peaceful lush spaces, crinkling wintry glaciers and bustling wilderness are all reflections of the young teen’s thoughts, feelings and mind states. They mirror Zen’s crippling isolation, repressed rage and quiet desperation, but also her moments of calming solitude and connection. Using this artistic device of emotional landscape makes Ferri’s film stand out from other coming-of-age stories and allows it to break through its tropes.
There are some heavy topics approached in the movie that are worth addressing. Zen is constantly the target of severe and ruthless bullying, as well as social marginalization and lack of a support network. Her only confidante is Vanessa, who despite her best intentions is not equipped to help with overcoming the devastating effects of peer abuse. This is one of the film’s shortcomings, as Ferri creates an almost surreal situation with improbable elements in it. By the end of the plotline, Zen becomes a popular and quirky character, whom everyone wants to be friends with. Previous bullies are now eager to hang out, and Zen gets to be accepted and even admired by all, but also has the undying affection of her best friend, the stereotypical “cool girl”. Albeit preferable, this situation rarely plays out in real life and seems more like a teen fantasy that unintentionally generates unrealistic expectations for a younger audience.
Zen in the Ice Rift (Zen sul ghiaccio sottile) visually engages you in the inner workings of a young mind struggling with gender identity. Its use of various storytelling techniques and innovative artistic tools is compelling, and its approach to darker topics is idealized, but enthralling nonetheless. Focused on vivid expression of emotions every step of the way, Ferri’s motion picture is a gratifying reminder that we are more alike than different when it comes to our internal experience of the world.