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A high-rolling businessman suffers an ego-shattering week of slow psychological torture in this assured debut feature from Serbian writer-director Nikola Ljuca, which transforms a marital crisis into a noir-tinged suspense thriller. A Serbia, Greece and Netherlands co-production, Humidity had already picked up prizes and positive reviews at various European festivals before screening in competition in Sarajevo last week. Further festival bookings are likely, with potential for niche theatrical and VOD interest among devotees of quality Balkan cinema.
Set in contemporary Belgrade in sweltering late July, Humidity begins with a sustained bout of sweaty sex between inscrutable beauty Mina (Tamara Krcunovic) and her younger lover Milan (Slaven Doslo, the smoldering hunk seen in last year’s Cannes-launched festival favorite Panama). Mina then leaves for the airport to pick up her husband Petar (Milos Timotijevic), an unscrupulous construction manager and sharp-suited member of modern Serbia’s ruthlessly ambitious, BMW-driving, new-money elite.
The couple are due at a house party that night, but Petar wakes from a short nap to find Mina has mysteriously vanished. He attends the party alone, making excuses for her absence to friends and family. As the week progresses, with no word from his missing wife, Petar becomes increasingly paranoid and frantic. He hacks into Mina’s email account, desperately looking for clues. He prowls the city’s empty streets at night, stalks strangers and begins a faltering English-language flirtation with an elusive foreigner (Dutch actress Maria Kraakman). After a week of keeping up appearances, he finally snaps during a cocaine-fueled nightclub meltdown that climaxes in creepy, coercive sex.
The mystery at the heart of Humidity is eventually resolved, in an opaque manner, but never fully explained. Like Pedro Almodovar in his latest puzzler Julieta, Ljuca seems more interested in provoking viewers to fill in the narrative gaps themselves. His implied critique of Petar’s bling-heavy lifestyle, where routinely shady business ethics pay for tastefully glitzy villas and high-end beauty spas, is an ever-present subtext that will strike a deeper chord for moviegoers in newly capitalist Serbia, but it is still just one thread in a richer narrative. Even a fateful encounter between Petar and Mina’s secret lover Milan is refreshingly underplayed, winking to viewers who know more than the characters, but not milked for melodrama.
Humidity has its blemishes. Ljuca’s inconclusive finale will irritate some viewers. His use of rough sex and druggy hedonism to boost adrenaline levels in the flagging third act feels a little too clichéd for such a nuanced drama, while his snippets of English dialogue have a clumsy ring: “Everything is cheap here … especially if you have a lot of money.” Clang.
But Timotijevic gives a quietly intense central performance, fragile and sympathetic despite Petar’s many flaws, while Krcunovic and Doslo both make a strong impression in their limited screen time. Fleshing out a slender narrative with lonely late-night streetscapes and ominous musical drones, cinematographer Maja Radosevic and composer Janja Loncar help Ljuca create a compellingly queasy portrait of contemporary Belgrade as a soulless urban wasteland haunted by unspoken secrets and gnawing dissatisfaction. A highly promising first feature, Humidity joins Serbian cinema’s growing canon of emotionally mature, socially engaged, finely acted contemporary Eurodrama.
Venue: Sarajevo Film Festival
Production companies: Dart Film, Cinnamon Production, Lemming Film, 2.35
Cast: Milos Timotijevic, Tamara Krcunovic, Maria Kraakman, Katarina Markovis, Dragan Bakema, Slaven Doslo
Director: Nikola Ljuca
Screenwriters: Stasa Bajac, Nikola Ljuca
Producers: Natasa Damnjanovic, Vladimir Vidic
Director of photography: Maja Radosevic
Editors: Natasa Damnjanovic, Jelena Rosic, Vladimir Vidic
Music: Janja Loncar
Sales: Soul Food, Belgrade
Not rated, 113 minutes
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