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The folkloric figure of the feral child raised by wild animals has a long screen history, from Tarzan and Mowgli to the animalistic anti-hero of Francois Truffaut’s L’Enfant Sauvage. Though loosely based on a real case, Serbian writer-director Vuk Rsumovic’s debut dramatic feature plays out like a pointed political fable, inviting viewers to ponder the limits of humanity in times of war. Made with subtlety and craft, No One’s Child has already won multiple awards on the festival circuit, including the top prize at GoEast Festival in Germany last month. Further fest interest is a strong possibility, with modest potential for specialist distribution.
In the winter of 1988, a team of hunters stumble across a mute boy-child (Denis Muric) living among wolves deep in the forests of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was then part of Yugoslavia. Randomly assigned the name Haris, the foundling is shipped off to an orphanage in the capital Belgrade, despite being unable to speak or even walk on two legs. Inevitably, this freakish new arrival is cruelly bullied by the other boys. But over the next four years, he slowly learns human speech and behavior under the protective gaze of kindly teacher Ilke (Milos Timotijevic) and fellow inmate Zika (Pavle Cemerikic), who takes Haris on exciting forays into the city center.
Just as Haris seems on course for a relatively normal adolescence, history conspires against him. Zika abruptly quits the orphanage, ditching his new friend for the shaky promise of a reunion with his own deadbeat father. Meanwhile, the off-screen collapse of the old Eastern Bloc fractures Yugoslavia into warring nations, flooding the orphanage with refugees and ethnic tensions. Belgrade is reborn as the Serbian capital, its streets awash with crime and violence. As Serbia and Bosnia are now at war, Haris is put on a train and sent back home, where he becomes enmeshed in the bloodshed almost by accident. The final scenes, in snowy woodland, neatly echo the film’s opening.
No One’s Child largely hinges on Muric’s intense performance, which is rarely less than magnetic and never panders to audience sympathy. The long wordless scenes in which the untamed Haris slowly learns to communicate are especially impressive, inviting obvious parallels with Miroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s thematically similar Cannes prize-winner The Tribe, which takes place in an orphanage for deaf children. Damjan Radovanovic’s camerawork is crisp and unshowy, with just the occasional flamboyant flourish, like the 360-degree whirl that conveys the young hero’s giddy sense of liberation when first let loose in the big city.
Rsumovic has minor problems with pacing, notably when the repetitive routines of orphanage life begin to drag in the film’s midsection. Some of the peripheral characters also slip a little too easily into stock Balkan clichés of thugs, petty criminals and strippers. But overall, No One’s Child is a strong feature debut which admirably resists any obvious flirtation with moralistic melodrama. Always compassionate but never didactic, it finally blossoms into a potent universal fairy tale about the thin line between savagery and civilization.
Production companies: Art & Popcorn, Baboon Production, Kinorama
Cast: Denis Muric, Pavle Cemerikic, Isidora Jankovic, Milos Timotijevic, Tihomir Stanic, Borka Tomovic, Goran Susljik, Zinaida Dedakin
Director, screenwriter: Vuk Rsumovic
Producer: Miroslav Mogorovic
Cinematographer: Damjan Radovanovic
Editor: editor, Mirko Bojovic
Music: Jura Ferina, Pavao Miholjevic
Sales company: Soul Food Distribution, Belgrade
No rating, 95 minutes
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