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‘Ivo’ Review: Promising German Director Examines the Coping Strategies of Dealing With Death Every Day

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Ivo (Minna Wündrich) spends her days tending to terminally ill patients. In her capacity as a palliative care nurse, she’s not responsible for saving them — that’s the doctors’ concern — though this 40-ish single mother does her best to listen to their complaints and ease their pain. It can be a draining experience, both physically and emotionally, and Ivo sometimes bends the rules in ways that make her at once more relatable and less saintly than her job might suggest.

With “Ivo,” writer-director Eva Trobisch doesn’t dwell on the morality of her title character’s choices, focusing more on the tension between this woman’s optimism and the weight of her work. Trobisch’s tough, observational drama builds on the promise of her 2018 debut, “All Is Good,” about a young woman determined not to let a sexual assault derail her life. Here, the German filmmaker delivers another stripped-down, totally unsentimental portrait of someone overwhelmed by the feelings she keeps bottled up within.

While the two characters are quite different, there’s a consistency to Trobisch’s approach that marks her as an important new voice. Named one of Variety’s Directors to Watch earlier this year, she won the Heiner Carow Prize at the Berlinale — an award earmarked for emerging German helmers. With “Ivo,” this undeniable new talent poses a simple but essential question: Who cares for the caregivers?

Ivo has no one to provide the comfort she gives others — a sad irony when you consider that knowing she’s being watched by an empathetic audience might alleviate the profound aloneness she experiences. Then again, if Ivo were the subject of a documentary, she’d no doubt tailor her behavior to the camera crew, whereas Trobisch’s docu-adjacent approach (which places Wündrich alongside non-actors) feels more honest. Though scripted, Ivo’s life feels genuine, made up of messy, seemingly mundane details.

Most of the time, she comes across as the unsung hero in a thankless profession. But not always. In one scene, Ivo injects herself with painkillers intended for a patient, so as to feel numb. In another, she swipes through profiles on a dating app, scoffing at those looking for connection — it’s distraction she’s after. She picks a stranger, meets up with him at a bar and then lies, telling him she has to get home to the babysitter when she’s had enough. In fact, Ivo’s daughter is old enough to be independent, making preparations to leave home that signal another form of loss to a woman who’s constantly surrounded by it.

The movie follows Ivo on her rounds, visiting a range of ailing patients in the homes where they’ve arranged to receive their care. In so doing, Trobisch turns the public’s attention to a subject most of us prefer to forget, while the clipped editing style — which jump-cuts briskly between scenes — abruptly forces audiences to reorient to each new situation as it arises. That tactic puts viewers in the position of trying to make sense of certain patterns, as Wündrich’s face and the recurring space of her car — a mobile cocoon where she takes breaks to sing, smoke and cry between appointments — provide a kind of continuity.

Trobisch presents Ivo’s life in pieces, and not always in the most convenient order for us to create meaning. Early on, she introduces a woman with a degenerative condition named Solveigh (Pia Hierzegger), who seems younger than Ivo’s other charges. Much later, we learn that she and Ivo have been friends for years, which complicates their dynamic, as does Sol’s desire for assisted suicide, which goes against everything Ivo’s line of work stands for. Trickier still, Ivo is having an affair with Sol’s husband, Franz (Lukas Turtur).

After 20 minutes of depicting Ivo as a total professional, Trobisch takes us into a hotel room where she’s arranged to meet Franz. It’s a casual, disarmingly frank scene — reminiscent of a similar tryst in another recent German film, “Toni Erdmann” — that complicates our perception of Ivo in the best possible way. For the rest of the film’s running time, she’s a woman of secrets. She wants to honor her friend’s wishes, but she’s hardly disinterested.

At one point, Ivo tells another patient’s wife, who’s paranoid that her dying husband will rewrite his will to leave everything to Ivo, caregivers aren’t allowed to accept bequests, legally or ethically. But what of this situation, in which Ivo stands to “inherit” a lover after Sol’s passing? The movie sees this question all the way through, multitasking their relationship along with Ivo’s other responsibilities. Trobisch isn’t an especially plot-centric storyteller, which makes this thorny love triangle the film’s most compelling thread. Death is a normal part of Ivo’s work, but here she’s put in the terrible position of anticipating the death of a friend, half-hoping it could mean a fresh start in her own life.