Sunday, December 14, 2014

Two films from the Balkans: Zakloni (Ivan Salatić, Montenegro, 2014) and Okean (Tamara Drakulić, Serbia, 2014)

Picture courtesy of Ivan Salatić.
The 32nd edition of the Turin Film Festival, an annual event that is as old as this blogger, ran in my hometown from November 21 to 29. This year the festival offered a rich selection of American movies of the 70s, so I had the opportunity to catch up with little-seen films like the irresistibly funny Taking Off (1971), which was Czech director Miloš Forman's foray into Hollywood, as well as renowned ones, like Sydney Pollack's paranoia-drenched Three Days of the Condor (1975), for which I've miraculously managed to stay away from spoilers for 32 years. Among the films in competition I saw the short feature film Zakloni (Shelters) by Ivan Salatić from Montenegro, in combination with Okean (Ocean) by Serbian director Tamara Drakulić; I give a brief account of the screenings in the following.

Zakloni, in my opinion the best of the two, manages to condense in its 24-minutes running time a vivid portrait of an adolescent boy named Luka (excellently played by non-professional actor Luka Petrone) who lives in Herceg Novi, the director's own hometown in Montenegro. Half documentary, half fiction film, it consists of some brief but carefully composed scenes of different length and pace. Most of them are rather static, as if reflecting Luka's mood following his parents' separation  an event that is concisely hinted at at the beginning but informs the whole film. Occasionally we are given more dynamic shots, like when Luka plunges in a canal overlooking a now abandoned military base; the impact of this scene is enhanced by an abrupt break with the previous one, and by the fact that the camera follows Luka down till the splash with a rapid and precise movement. Such breaks are frequent throughout. In fact, the film unfolds like a juxtaposition of self-contained moments rather than a temporal progression; narrative is reduced to the minimum, although a final encounter between Luka and his away-from-home father provides a sort of narrative closure. The environment plays a crucial role, too. At times the town's architecture seems to swallow up people's lives; this largely depends on Salatić's framings, that often relegate persons to constrained, off-centered portions of the screen. Particularly vivid is a high-angle shot of a woman sunbathing on a narrow, cage-like balcony, with the house's concrete wall occupying most of the frame (see screenshot above). Similarly, in the closing scene father and son appear overwhelmed by the rigid geometry of a sport facility, the seats lined up like tombstones in a graveyard.

Mr. Salatić was kind enough to do a brief Q&A with the audience after the screening. He explained how the abrupt cuts between scenes happening at different times and places were intended to reflect how memories surface in our mind, more often triggered by moment-to-moment sensations rather than by a cause-effect chain. He also said that the compression of space in some of the shots was aimed at suggesting what's outside of the frame; for me, it worked differently, as I enjoyed those shots more for their abstract quality than for what they didn't show  more for how they communicated the absence of vital space rather than the presence of a wider space all around. Anyway, if "cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out", as Scorsese famously pointed out, Salatić seems to have perfectly internalized the motto. He also told us that the film sprung from an image he had in mind, that of a boy taking a plunge into the pool at the military base. He then wrote a short story that served as starting point for the shooting; however, the story was not used strictly for the film's script, but remained a quite different work from the final film. When asked how he found the actor playing the main character, Mr. Salatić said that he met him by chance in his hometown's main square, and he immediately realized that the boy possessed exactly what he was searching for. In fact, he soon abandoned the casting process, which he finds to be a tedious, even painful practice.

Tamara Drakulić's Okean was screened immediately afterward in the presence of the director. It chronicles the journey she took from her native town in Serbia till Hawaii to attend a dear friend's funeral. In the very first shot the camera lingers on some sea waves, while a voice-over introduces the purpose of the journey. At regular intervals the camera abruptly readjusts the framing, at times pointing towards the horizon, other times towards the water's edge. At first I thought that these sudden camera movements foreshadowed the film's visual style, but I was proven wrong. In fact, after a couple of interviews with friends saying her goodbye, what we have from then on is a sort of contemplative logbook of the voyage, which mostly unfolds aboard a cargo ship traveling across the Atlantic Ocean. This central section largely consists of static, lyrical shots taken from the ship's deck at various hours of the day and with different winds blowing. The voice-over often provides an eerily detached commentary on the images, with descriptions of various types of winds serving as a kind of loose division in chapters. This meditative mood is sometimes interrupted by more down-to-earth moments. At one point, a member of the crew explains how the Atlantic currents affect the ship's route; shots of the director and her boyfriend killing time in their cabin are inserted throughout (the lack of remarkable happenings in the course of the long-awaited journey reminded me of Joseph Conrad's The Shadow Line).

I was especially impressed by the gorgeousness of the shots taken from the ship's deck; I suppose that the setting's inherent beauty had a considerable part in it. Ms. Drakulić displays a taste for exquisite framings comparable to Salatić's when it comes to static shots, but she seems less confident in moving the camera. When a weather balloon is thrown from the ship, arguably in order to collect meteorological data, the camera seems unable to keep its trajectory within the frame, despite keeping a certain distance from the source; the result is an involuntarily jerky camera movement that even made me question the intentionality of the first scene. The same happens during the ash scattering ceremony, where the camera's shakiness is particularly inappropriate given the unrepeatability of the event, and the importance it has in the context of the story. On the whole, I found Drakulić's film most effective when it combined poetic voice-over commentary with evocative imagery; more dynamic scenes didn't quite match up with the rest of the movie due to erratic camerawork.

Both films seem to me promising works in their own way. Mr. Salatić may want to venture into the feature-length form in the future; to Ms. Drakulić I would suggest combining her marked compositional skills with a greater care for non-static shots. All in all, two pleasant surprises from a region that rarely makes its way to our screens.

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