The story takes place in the world of actors and artists. Tramp and former circus performer Walter enters the world of his nephew Philipp Hochmair who is a young and successful theatre actor working in Hamburg and Vienna. Walter searches for a way to talk to Philipp's father, his half brother. Out of some past reason the father does not want to have any contact with Walter and due to that the melancholic uncle and his smug nephew get to know each other. Later Walter starts to help the immigrant neighbor of Philipp to get his wife back to Austria. The way Covi and Frimmel hover through the lives of their protagonists denies any dramaturgical structure. It is a special experience to watch The Shine of Day because the actors basically play themselves.
Just like in a John Cassavetes feature it sometimes gets quite confusing to figure out what really happened and what is staged. In the fashion of a documentary the two directors are more interested in their characters than in the plot. They try to listen instead of directing. That works best in the scenes where it is all about acting: Acting as a profession, acting as a way to survive, acting to help someone. The actor Philipp Hochmair agreed to have scenes of him during or before his real theatre performances included in the film. Those backstage moments offer a rare view into the soul of an artist like when he laughs behind the stage after dying onstage or acts out a scene for the film in his wardrobe seconds before he returns to the stage. One can almost feel his borderline confusion, switching between many roles, trying to reach a new limit. The achievement of the film is the way it uses performers to look beyond their mask and it heavily succeeds in creating glimpses of truth out of moments many others would not dare to have a closer look at.
The tension of the picture lies in the different lifestyles of Walter and Philipp. There is an ongoing affection and fascination between them as well as there is disgust and misunderstanding. One never knows for sure where Walter's behavior will lead to and what it is going to do with Philipp. Walter Saabel gives a heartbreaking performance as a broken man fighting for some decency and trying to figure out what his past was all about. The way he cares for the family of the neighbor is deeply touching and mirrors in the emerging trust in the children's eyes for example when he tries to convince the daughter to eat some rice. But in the midst of this entire truth one can also find two traps.
First one can clearly feel that the filmmakers sympathize with Walter. In a strange way the real life characters are watched from a subjective point-of-view and therefore, despite them basically acting-out their real life, seem to be slightly too black & white to be true. The good old uncle arrives from Italy to find himself and help some random immigrants whereas the narcissistic Philipp is only concerned with his own career, his roles and his life. In an embarrassing scene Walter trains his knife throwers abilities with an important and expensive statue of Philipp. Therein one can also find the second trap which is that the focus of the filmmakers seems to be on funny and peculiar moments and as soon as more serious topics like immigration or family loss arise it never quite gets rid of its loose, almost comedic tone.
Nevertheless The Shine of Day is a satisfying experience and its great run of festival successes is well deserved due to its unique approach in trying to bridge the gap between documentary and fiction.
The film is now playing in theatres in Austria.