Review: 'The Fifth Season'

An uneasy cousin to both “The White Ribbon” and “The Wicker Man,” Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth’s “The Fifth Season” paints a dryly absurd and gradually creepy portrait of how the balance between man and nature might quietly go awry.

In a nameless Belgian village, we watch as the townsfolk go about assembling everything they need to celebrate the end of winter, an occasion meant to culminate in the lighting of a giant bonfire. However, the fire refuses to catch this year, and the villagers slowly find themselves coping with the consequences of a spring inexplicably kept at bay. Roosters stop singing. Crops fail to grow. Cows refuse to give milk, bees quit making honey, and the starving, scared farming community begins to unravel as a result.

Brosens and Woodworth (“Altiplano”) remain spare with the hows and whys of their dark fable. When government forces come to quarantine the livestock, they offer no explanation, and the rare out-of-town visitor can only confirm that the desperation is indeed widespread. The writer-directors instead linger on the surreal consequences of such a strange event: giant bodies bob along the horizon, wasted milk cascades down a rock wall, a tractor circles an empty field. Villagers stock their pantries with jars of insects in order to feed their families; young romance curdles into something more vicious; single parenting becomes an even heavier burden to bear; and the meat on pets’ bones finally becomes too tempting to ignore.

The camera lurks on the harsh dilemmas unfolding across this perpetually wintery, increasingly monochromatic landscape, either panning slowly to or holding still on the next bleak circumstance. When bartering and rationing give way to thievery and fanaticism, actions begin to speak louder than words, and “Season” becomes an increasingly eerie glimpse into the bravery -- or desperation -- that it takes to leave the old ways behind, and how new rituals may be no less irrational than those which came before. We’re only invited to know a handful of the town’s citizens intimately, but each presents a uniquely haunting possibility as to how such a scenario would proceed to deteriorate common social decency in simple and stark ways.

To that end, the penultimate shot exquisitely encapsulates the film’s overriding duality between the human beast and Nature Itself before the actual final frames proceed to muddy the themes. Barring that odd touch, this is a deliberately paced, perfectly captured nightmare.

SCORE: 8.4 / 10

"The Fifth Season" is currently awaiting U.S. distribution.