"My Sister Maria" is, as its title predicts, an extremely personal documentary, a brother's act of love and a sincere attempt to understand a life and a relationship. Because the sister is actress Maria Schell and the younger brother is actor-director Maximilian Schell, the project has a charm it otherwise might not manage.
Though her name is not much heard these days, especially in this country, Maria Schell had an extensive movie career encompassing about 70 features. Her credits included such Hollywood vehicles as 1958's "The Brothers Karamazov" and 1960's "Cimarron," but she had most of her success in Europe. She won the best actress award at Cannes for "The Last Bridge" and followed it almost immediately with the same honor at Venice for "Gervaise."
Her brother Maximilian, whom she calls Maxi, has directed offbeat biographical documentaries before; his "Marlene," a look at Marlene Dietrich, was Oscar-nominated. Here he combines re-created events and filmed interviews with his sister with several aims in mind.
Recapturing the extent of Maria's career is certainly on her brother's mind. Expertly chosen clips from more than a dozen of her films are provided, including memorable work with Marcello Mastroianni in Luchino Visconti's "White Nights" and with Oskar Werner in "The Angel With the Trumpet."
It's not just her performances that audiences devoured; her youthful freshness and radiance made Schell, born in Austria but self-exiled with her family in her father's Switzerland during World War II, a huge fan favorite. "After the war, when everything was destroyed," one partisan reports, "she represented hope for us."
But Maximilian's thrust with this film is always more psychological than conventionally biographical. He's still trying, after all these years, to come to terms with his relationship to his sister and to understand the interplay between career and personal matters in her life.
More than that, with Maria 78 and Maximilian 73, there is a sense just below the surface of the director trying to come to grips with weightier concerns. "My Sister Maria" is a thoughtful look backward, a summing up that attempts to understand what is ephemeral and what truly lasts, what it is that matters in the final analysis.
The setting is Carinthia in southern Austria, both Maria's current home and her parents' prewar one. Something of a recluse and battling health problems, Maria is still an object of fascination to the German-speaking media. One of the re-created scenes has a tabloid photographer sneaking in and grabbing a photo. Maria's tart reaction when it was printed: "I used to be on Page 1, now I'm on Page 3."
Maria's main occupation these days, much to Maximilian's irritation, is watching herself on old movies. She likes it so much, she orders additional TVs so she can see more than one at once. "It all comes back, I'm inside the scene immediately, I was so happy then," she says, her eyes still bright. "It's more interesting than reality, don't you think?"
Quietly, persistently, Maria's brother asks gently probing questions about her work, her personal life, how she balanced (not always well) the demands of love and career. Nothing could be more intimate than this, but it is in investigating things that seem to have troubled him personally for quite some time that Maximilian Schell makes his strongest connection to an audience.
"My Sister Maria" is a discursive, ruminative film, but it's none the worse for that. It's even indulgent in terms of the screen time allotted to the director's wife and children. But the intensity of feeling, the honesty involved, capture us. That this is who Maria Schell is here and now, there can be no doubt.
'My Sister Maria'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Adult subject matter
A MFG-Film, EPO-Film, Dschoint Ventschr Production, distributed by KirchMedia. Director Maximilian Schell. Producers Maximilian Schell, Dieter Pochlatko, Margit Churchra, Werner Schwizer. Screenplay Maximilian Schell, Gero von Boehm. Cinematographer Piotr Jaxa. Editor Charlotte Mullner. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times