Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Two Films from the Balkans

Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos – Greece) 93 minutes

Children of Sarajevo (Djeca) (Aida Begić – Bosnia-Herzegovina/Germany/France/Turkey) 90 minutes

Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2009 film Dogtooth, winner of the Un certain regard award at Cannes, was a surprise sleeper hit around Europe, its success largely propelled by word of mouth. Surprising mainly because Lanthimos’s style – static shots, mannered acting and absurdist drama – doesn’t lend itself naturally to public appeal. His follow-up, Alps, is more of the same, though somewhat more uncompromising.

A group of four amateur actors form a company called ‘Alps’ who offer their services to bereaved families and individuals, playing out the roles of deceased friends and relatives to help them grieve. The roles taken on include a teenage girlfriend, a Canadian lover of a middle-aged man and the daughter of a bookish elderly gentleman.  Even if you know this conceit beforehand, it is hard to follow the film at times, as the characters shift from role to role, including their own ‘real-life’ ones – one of the ‘actors’ is a paramedic and the other a nurse – and the plot lurches into one narrative aporia after another. That said, the performative aspect of Alps is interesting, with its absurd set-ups recalling the soberly deranged cinema of the Portuguese directors Pedro Costa, João Pedro Rodrigues and Miguel Gomes.

You are tempted at times to read more into the film than might be there – is it a parable for a crisis-stricken Greece? Does the accumulation of references to Hollywood actors and American singers – with not a single Greek cited – reflect the current economic emasculation of the Greek nation? These may or may not be pertinent but Alps is a sufficiently elastic narrative to give rise to such ruminations. And sometime, trying to figure out what is going on on screen can be as liberating as it is frustrating. In many ways it is similar to Athina Rachel Tsangari’s more narratively robust Attenberg (2010) – a film that Lanthimos had a supporting role in (Tsangari is the producer of this film). Many people will loathe Alps and it does feel like a minor diversion but it is also pleasingly free-wheeling and for all its inscrutability, quite entertaining.

Young Bosnian director Aida Begićs first feature Snow was another Cannes prize-winner, picking up the Grand Jury prize during Critics’ Week in 2008. It was a solid drama about a Muslim village whose menfolk have been obliterated by the war and which is now about to bought by a foreign company; after such a promising debut, Children of Sarajevo is particularly disappointing. Like its predecessor, the film tells the story of victims of the Bosnian War – this time, a twenty-something woman and her teenage brother, both left orphaned by the conflict. The older sister, Rahima, wears a headscarf though she doesn’t appear to be an especially devout Muslim – it is gradually revealed that it her embracing of religion is more a way of distancing herself from her junkie past and securing custody of her brother to keep him out of the orphanage. The brother, Nedim, is being bullied at school, and though he is well able to take care of himself, he does so inflicting costly damage on his bully’s iPhone.

Rahima, who works as a cook, is forced to replace the phone, as Nedim’s tormenter is none other than the son of a government minister, a philandering boor with some dodgy connections, who is a frequent diner in the upscale restaurant where Rahima works. This is where the film begins to go wrong. Though Begic’s portrayal of life in a Sarajevo tower block is finely detailed, with the ordinary poverty of low earners delineated in trips to the local convenience store, the chilliness of under-heated apartments and the hacking cough of the sibling’s middle-aged neighbour Selma, the film’s drama is woefully schematic and its characterisation crude.

All the figures of authority, be they Nedim’s school principal, the restaurant manageress, the social worker who assesses Rahima’s fitness to take care of Nedim or, the biggest cardboard ogre of the lot, the minister Melic (played by Velibor Topić, a regular face as a generic Balkan thug in English-language films such as Snatch), are un-nuanced villains. They are all people that have either profited from the war or managed to get out, drawing frequent recrimination from Rahima, whose wartime past is evoked in real footage shot during evacuation of civilians from their homes. It is a valid dialectic, and familiar from narratives with a post-war setting. It is also, not surprisingly, a familiar one in recent Bosnian films too, such as Ognjen Sviličić’s Armin (2007) and Jasmila Zbanić’s Grbavica (2006) and On the Path (2010). The problem is Begić’s narrative is far clunkier than either of those and you can far too easily see the joins. It begins to wear long before the end.