The arrival of the Schengen Agreement in Europe did not only lead to the virtual disappearance of border checks and stops between states within the Schengen Area, but also to a greatly reinforced outer border. The latter is a useful fact to keep in mind when watching the sprawling yet frequently intense thriller-drama The Line (Ciara), which focuses on a gang of smugglers funneling Ukrainian contraband into the European Union in the fall of 2007, just before Slovakia joined the Schengen Area. Directed by Slovak actor turned filmmaker Peter Bebjak, this is gorgeously filmed and powerfully acted mainstream entertainment that should do solid business in Central Europe and might tickle the fancy of distributors further afield as well, especially if it gets some awards love at Karlovy Vary, where it premiered.
The burly and bearded Adam Krajnak (imposing theater actor Tomas Mastalir), who lives on the Slovak side of the Ukrainian-Slovak border, is the head of a small gang involved in transporting contraband cigarettes into the European Union. Bribes, lies and intimidation are the tools of his trade. In what amounts to one of the character’s fascinating paradoxes, since he’s trying to make a point about only wanting to smuggle in relatively innocent contraband, Krajnak mercilessly snaps off a finger of one of his men with a bolt cutter when he discovers they’ve secretly been taking meth across the border as well. The message is clear: He has his own rules, and he’ll break any rule to enforce them.
Krajnak is not so much the protagonist of The Line as the large cast’s pivotal central character. His own clan includes the stern family matriarch Anna (Emilia Vasaryova, from recent Slovak Oscar submission Eva Nova), his wife (Zuzana Fialova) and their children, teenager Lucia (Kristina Kanatova) and her kid sister (Vanessa Antovska).
Lucia has been secretly dating the handsome local youngster Ivor (Oleksandr Piskunov), and one of the film’s early standout sequences involves the wiry young man. Awkward and nervous, he asks Adam, a bulky alpha-male type, for his eldest daughter’s hand. As if that isn’t difficult enough, the conversation takes places just outside a trailer in which some of Adam’s henchmen are severely roughing up one of the smugglers involved in the meth deal. It’s a highly effective coup de theatre from Bebjak and screenwriter Peter Balko, as it illustrates so many things at once. On the surface, it suggests Krajnak’s standing at the top of the food chain, as well as Ivor’s plucky, if clearly also somewhat naive, character. And on a more subterranean level, the fight inside seems to visually suggest something about Ivor’s conflicted and even violent feelings about what he’s about to do, while also possibly foreshadowing what might happen to the young man should he not treat Lucia to Krajnak’s liking.
Besides the Krajnaks, the film also follows Jona (Eugen Libezniuk), an associate of Krajnak’s whose son, Luka (Makar Tikhomirov), is being held in a Ukrainian jail and who is close to the breaking point. Jona is trying to get Krajnak to agree to the suggestion of the Ukrainian crime boss, Krull (Stanislav Boklan), to profit from the last couple of months of a relatively open border between the two countries and also start moving quantities of drugs, but Krajnak remains unconvinced. And the corrupt local head of police (Andy Hryc) has his own ideas and a few unexpected associates.
There’s a lot to juggle here, but Bebjak familiarizes the audience with the large cast very quickly and then starts to intertwine and connect their stories in ways that are fascinating. For the most part, the narrative moves along with the stately pace and irrefutable logic of unavoidable tragedy, but especially in the closing reels, the sheer quantity of characters starts to dilute the work’s focus. Not every secondary character needs a fully completed arc — otherwise you end up with more endings than The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King — and there are a few too many moments when Bebjak seems to be telling the story from somewhere close to the point of view of someone who has practically no bearing on the story, especially when human trafficking becomes part of the plot and the story moves to the wooded border area between the two nations.
The characters inhabit an eat-or-be-eaten world, and for the actors in such a large cast, there is a similar risk of fading into the background unless they claw their way into the audience’s consciousness in their few big scenes. Mastalir and Vasaryova, who both come from the theater, are masters at this, and their shared scenes are among the most striking. Krajnak is much more of a doer than a talker, but cinematographer Martin Ziaran wisely showcases his expressive face in the film’s quieter moments, which often speak louder than words. The similarities between Krajnak and his mother surface organically, and Vasaryova manages to do a lot with very little, especially in a set of unexpected confrontations, first in a cellar and then in an industrial kitchen. There’s not a weak link in the large supporting cast, with young Piskunov especially impressive as the in-love — or at least in-lust — youngster whose future in-laws might be a whole lot more than he bargained for.
As a mainstream entertainment, The Line includes a lot of the familiar tropes from the crime, thriller and family-drama genres. But Bebjak and Balko use these in function of a specifically local story, with the cinematography showcasing the region’s dark forests, dilapidated, neon-lit gas stations, unremarkable villages, countless border crossings and one especially eerie location: a fully flooded quarry that manages to look especially foreboding in broad daylight.
The filmmakers thus respect the rules of the genre, but also the very modest place where the story is set, with Bebjak wisely avoiding crazy car chases, massive explosions or epic shoot-outs. That doesn’t mean that there is no violence — quite the contrary, actually — but rather that it sticks to the kind of brutality that feels believable in the context of its small-town setting. Slavo Solovic’s swirling, increasingly sinister score further completes what is an impressively assembled package.
Production companies: Wandal Production, Garnet International Media Group, RTVS, HomeMedia Production
Cast: Tomas Mastalir, Emilia Vasaryova, Andy Hryc, Eugen Libezniuk, Zuzana Fialova, Stanislav Boklan, Rimma Ziubina, Kristina Kanatova, Oleksandr Piskunov, Filip Kankovsky, Milan Mikulcik, Volodymyr Helyas, Makar Tikhomirov, Vanessa Antovska, Nela Porkertova
Director: Peter Bebjak
Screenwriter: Peter Balko
Producer: Wanda Adamik Hrycova
Director of photography: Martin Ziaran
Production designer: Vaclav Novak
Costume designer: Jan Kocman
Editor: Marek Kralovsky
Music: Slavo Solovic
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Official Selection - Competition)
Sales: Ameline Thomas
In Slovak, Ukrainian