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Sunny Mediterranean hedonism meets gloomy Balkan pessimism in Albania’s official Oscar contender for the best foreign-language film, a tragicomic three-hander about secrets, lies and family ties. Intended by its joint writer-directors Iris Elezi and Thomas Logoreci as an allegorical portrait of contemporary Albania, Bota initially feels lethargic and slight, but it delivers some much-needed emotional bite in its final act by addressing collective amnesia about the country’s brutal Communist past. A ravishing soundtrack of vintage local pop ballads is another strong selling point for a slow-burn fable whose subtle charms are unlikely to find much traction beyond film festivals and Balkan cinema connoisseurs.
“Bota” is the Albanian word for “world,” but also the pointedly symbolic (and possibly ironic) name for the cafe at the heart of the film, a ramshackle roadside diner at the far end of a dusty road through a lonely stretch of swampland. With a wrecked car perched on its roof and a mysterious vagrant sleeping beneath its raised floor, this No Man’s Land setting has an almost dreamlike aura, like something from a classic Fellini film or Samuel Beckett play. The backdrop might be contemporary Albania, but time and location are both a little otherworldly.
The prime protagonist is Juli (Flonja Kodheli), a pensive young woman who divides her time between looking after her elderly great-aunt Noje (Tinka Kurti) in her crumbling apartment block and working at the cafe, which is owned by her cousin Benni (Artur Gorishti). The married, middle-aged Benni is also dangerously in debt and entangled in an adulterous affair with his 25-year-old mistress Nora (Fioralba Kryemadhi). Meanwhile, an Italian-Albanian construction crew is building a highway nearby, dangling the vague promise of financial windfalls and romantic adventure to these three stranded souls.
Languid and sleepy, Bota initially feels like a still-life picture of small-town stagnation, but seismic events are looming just beyond the horizon. As Benni teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, Nora finds she is pregnant, and human skeletons are pulled from the marshes that will shake the slumbering storyline into life. These are the remains of political dissidents who were exiled and executed in this godforsaken rural backwater under Albania’s Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. The final act brings these historical crimes into sharp focus, setting off a lethal chain of revelation and betrayal.
A co-production between Albania, Italy and Kosovo, Bota impresses with its unschooled young stars, its evocative retro soundtrack and its attractive panoramic views of a dusty corner of Europe that is rarely seen onscreen. The slack pacing and underpowered script betray Elezi and Logoreci as debutantes, but do not wholly sabotage this haunting little three-hander, which adds sparkle to somber naturalism with a dash of magic realism.
Production companies: Erafilm Production, I’s Continnum, Partner Media Investment
Cast: Flonja Kodheli, Artur Gorishti, Fioralba Kryemadhi, Tinka Kurti, Alban Ukaj, Luca Lionello
Directors: Iris Elezi, Thomas Logoreci
Screenwriters: Iris Elezi, Thomas Logoreci, Stefania Casini
Producers: Andrea Stucovitz, Sabina Kodra
Cinematographer: Ramiro Civita
Editor: Walter Fasano
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival