15 movie rev Styx 1

Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small: Susanne Wolff

Drama, not rated, in German and English with subtitles, Violet Crown, 3 chiles

Disasters are relative to distance. A child falling and breaking her leg in front of me affects me more than a stranger hurt in an accident three miles away. Most of us react to an earthquake on a distant continent with a shake of the head, and perhaps a reach for the checkbook.

In the drama Styx, for Rieke (a name found only in the credits, played by Susanne Wolff), a German doctor with an emergency traffic unit, disasters are a fact of daily life. Her level of stress is high. To get away from it all, she packs up her 30-foot sailing yacht in Gibraltar and sets out to brave the seas alone on a more than 3,000-mile voyage to one of the most remote spots on Earth, Ascension Island. A dot on the map in the middle of the South Atlantic between Africa and Brazil, Ascension is a volcanic island that a British botanical program — championed by Charles Darwin and others — transformed from an arid cinder into a tropical paradise in the 19th century.

Writer-director Wolfgang Fischer fashions a surprisingly involving tale out of a movie that, for much of its 94-minute running time, has one character and practically no spoken words. After an absorbing opening, which features a grisly urban traffic smashup and a number of macaque monkeys slinking around the walls and trees of Gibraltar, we are off on the high seas with Rieke. She steers her craft with skill, reads, swims, and applies sunblock, all recorded in Benedict Neuenfels’ splendid photography. But it’s not a sea story without a storm, and when a big one hits, Rieke shrugs off a weather warning and an offer of help from a radio voice and goes it alone.

When the storm clears, she’s somewhere off the coast of Mauritania. She spots a trawler a few hundred yards off her port bow, overladen with refugees, and slowly sinking. Here is where the movie’s existential moral crisis kicks in. Rieke radios the Coast Guard, who promise to send help and order her to stay clear of the distressed boat. She’s a doctor, conditioned to save lives, and she can hear faint cries and see desperate figures leaping into the water and trying to swim to her. But her sailboat is too small to accommodate more than a few, and if she defies orders and sails close, the refugees will surely swarm aboard and swamp her.

A boy (Gedion Odour Wekesa) reaches her, she hauls him aboard, and when he recovers, he begs her to save others, including his sister. Fischer wants us to face up to the terrible world refugee crisis with something more than a shake of the head, but he provides no easy answers. As Rieke moans, “I don’t know what to do!”