In the ancient Legend of the Pelican, the mother bird feeds her famished, violently-pecking offspring with rivulets of her own blood. The protagonist of Katrin Gebbe’s intense horror-drama Pelican Blood performs a similar act of self-immolation to liberate her newly-adopted child from deep psychological trauma. Like her highly-divisive debut feature Nothing Bad Can Happen, Gebbe’s film is certain to provoke, infuriate and dazzle in equal measure. She’s out to draw blood.
Nina Hoss (Phoenix) plays Wiebke, a cowboy-hat-wearing single trainer of police horses, who lives with her adopted Bulgarian daughter Nicolina (Adelia-Constance Ocleppo) in the German farmlands. When desolation creeps in, she travels back to Bulgaria to get Nicolina a sibling – a five-year-old, golden-haired angelic cutie named Raya (Katerina Lipovska). Only Raya isn’t what she appears to be.
She stuffs her mouth at lunch and shoves grilled veggies into her pocket. She appears next to Wiebke late at night, staring at her. She roars like a beast. She bites. She bangs her head repeatedly against the floor. In a masterfully-handled sequence, Raya throws a dinner tantrum and sprays her new mom with ketchup; instead of grounding her, Wiebke gently attempts to turn it into a game.
“…travels back to Bulgaria to get Nicolina a sibling…Raya…Only Raya isn’t what she appears to be.”
Things get progressively worse. Raya allegedly does something unspeakable to another little boy. “No one wants to play with your daughter,” an enraged mother informs Wiebke at school. Freaky drawings, excrement play, pyromaniac tendencies, and dead hedgehogs lead to a prompt visit to a psychiatrist. Raya’s traumatic past starts to surface. “She feels neither empathy nor fear,” the doctor tells Wiebke after a series of tests. The part of Raya’s brain that feels emotions simply…atrophied.
What do you do when your child can’t feel? Wiebke resorts to extremes, attempting to provide Raya with a childhood she was denied, spoon (and breast!)-feeding her and carrying the girl everywhere on her back. In the meantime, Nicolina understandably begins to resent her new sister, while Wiebke’s coworkers (and a potential lover) shun her. With no discernible way out – short of giving Raya away – Wiebke decides to literally exorcize Raya’s murderous demon.