The medicinal powers of marijuana are no secret, even if the plot of writer-director Gjorce Stavreski’s bittersweet debut feature hinges on keeping certain key characters in the dark. Set in Macedonia, a small Balkan republic battered by political and economic turbulence for over a decade, Secret Ingredient could have been yet another addition to the canon of bleak social critiques from the former Eastern Bloc. But Stavreski adds a few secret ingredients of his own, moving beyond the story’s local context into the more universal terrain of unresolved family tensions, the dangers of superstition and the healing power of love.
Screened in the first-film competition at Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn last week, Secret Ingredient is an unassuming tragicomic gem that could well end up charming its way into niche distribution beyond the festival circuit. Given the number of proud stoners in Hollywood, an English-language remake is also an option, perhaps with Woody Harrelson or Matthew McConaughey in the lead? Pass the bong, dude.
Handsome and affable in a disheveled hangdog way, Blagoj Veselinov plays Vele, a thirtysomething blue-collar mechanic who works at a rundown rail yard in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. With the economy in recession and wage payments months overdue, Vele struggles to afford medicine for his ailing father Sazdo (Anastas Tanovski), who is afflicted with both terminal lung cancer and debilitating depression. Already shouldering a heavy burden of family tragedy, both men badly need a miracle to escape their bleak, impoverished lives.
Divine intervention arrives in the unlikely shape of a parcel of illegal narcotics smuggled into Macedonia, concealed on an incoming train. Enlisted by police and security guards to help search trains in the rail yard, Vele stumbles across the package and makes a rash split-second decision to purloin it for his own purposes. Alas, his clumsy bid to make money by selling drugs on the street only earns him a beating from local dealers. Instead he decides to improvise by baking a medicinal cannabis cake to ease’s his father’s pain, passing it off as an experimental new treatment. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
A curmudgeonly conservative with deeply traditional values, Sazdo is strongly opposed to illegal drugs. And yet, predictably, the marijuana has an instantly positive effect on his mood and his health. “You have raised me from the dead!” he beams, ignoring his son’s instructions by sharing the cake with sick friends and neighbors. Soon the grapevine is buzzing with news of Vele’s miraculous healing powers, and would-be patients clamor for treatment outside his apartment door. Unfortunately, this also alerts the mobsters on the trail of their missing package, who have already begun to terrorize rail yard workers with ominous warnings and savage beatings.
Secret Ingredient steps up a gear in its final act as Vele and Sazdo leave their drab urban apartment behind for a dramatic showdown in the beautiful Macedonian highlands. Here the film’s color palette brightens and the vistas become more cinematic. You can almost sense cinematographer Dejan Dimeski breathing a sigh of relief as he drinks in the majestic views. Stavreski shows admirable restraint by holding back some crucial family context until the full-blooded action-thriller climax.
In a nicely ironic twist, the superstitious Balkan folklore that Vele routinely derides ultimately proves to be his salvation. As cynicism gives way to optimism, Stavreski arguably becomes a little high on superstition himself, bestowing way too much medicinal power on marijuana. But by this point maybe he has earned his brief, intoxicating hit of magical thinking. Moving from bitter to sweet, Secret Ingredient is a film which wants to have its cannabis cake and eat it, too, and it largely succeeds.
Production companies: Fragment Film, GRAAL S.A, in association with Macedonian Film Agency, Greek Film Centre, SEE Cinema Network
Cast: Blagoj Veselinov, Anastas Tanovski, Aksel Mehmet, Aleksandar Mikic, Miroslav Petkovic, Dime Iliev, Simona Dimkovska
Director-screenwriter: Gjorce Stavreski
Cinematographer: Dejan Dimeski
Editor: Martin Ivanov
Music: Branislav Nikolov, Pece Trajkovski, Goce Jovanoski Simo Branov
Venue: Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival
Sales: Wide, Paris