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A severely depressed widow lives a life of quiet desperation in Requiem for Mrs. J, one of the more pleasantly surprising oddities to premiere at the Berlinale so far. With its fatalistic mood, lethargic pace and washed-out color palette, Serbian writer-director Bojan Vuletic’s somber comedy initially feels like the kind of relentlessly grim Eastern Bloc art house misery porn that was once designed to suck all the joy out of serious-minded film festival programs. But there is something much more playful and affirmative going on below the surface here, a stifled scream of defiant humanity against a mercilessly cruel universe.
Vuletic describes Requiem for Mrs. J as a state-of-the-nation fable about contemporary Serbia, a wounded land still wrestling with social and political transition following the bitter breakup of the former Yugoslavia. But while the story doubtless contains local resonances and references that only Balkan audiences will understand, the keynote themes of depression, grief, family friction and financial struggle will strike a universal chord in any language.
Featuring prize-winning Balkan screen icon Mirjana Karanovic in the lead, Requiem for Mrs. J should find a healthy domestic audience. As a co-production between Serbia, Bulgaria, Russia, Macedonia and France, it is also likely to play further afield. English-speaking markets will be a harder sell, but smart niche distributors could make a virtue of the film’s darkly comic absurdity. Further festival bookings are also sure to follow Berlin, starting with Belgrade next month.
Jelena (Karanovic) is stuck in a downward spiral of despair. She spends long hours staring glumly into the middle distance in her drab apartment as her befuddled elderly mother cowers in her bedroom and her fiery, foul-mouthed daughters trade sharp slaps and earthy insults. Whenever she ventures outside, Jelena is ritually cat-called by an ageing roadside fruit-seller, but she pointedly ignores his vulgar attempts at flirtation. For initially murky reasons, she also makes regular checks on her dusty old wreck of a car, which mysteriously appears to be in a slightly better condition each time she passes.
The impetus for Jelena’s deep-frozen state soon becomes clear. Widowed a year ago, she has lost the will to live, and secretly plans to kill herself on the anniversary of her husband’s death. She has even acquired a gun for the purpose. But before the looming deadline, she needs to tie up some crucial loose ends, including updating her state medical card, collecting her severance pay from her old job, and carving her name opposite her dead ex on their joint gravestone.
Sadly for Jelena, Serbian bureaucracy has not progressed much beyond the sclerotic system of communist Yugoslavia. Her daily meetings with doctors, bank officials, former employers and administrative clerks leads her into a Kafkaesque shadow world of long delays and legal catches. A visit to the crumbling factory where she used to work is an especially striking set-piece, a ghostly vision of a failed system in slow-motion entropy. Then, just as the last obstacles to suicide are finally cleared, Jelena learns that her eldest daughter Ana (Jovana Gavrilovic) is pregnant.
For all its surface misery, Requiem for Mrs. J bubbles along with deliciously deadpan humor and a warm glow of empathy toward its flawed protagonists. The drabness of the setting, a wintry concrete wasteland painted in 50 shades of joyless brown, is pointedly grim but artfully composed. Vuletic and his cinematographer Jelena Stankovic repeatedly use static master shots that are symmetrical and geometrically precise, conjuring up a painterly aesthetic despite their obviously modest budget. If Wes Anderson made a movie about suicidal Balkan widows, it would probably look like this.
Sonically as well as visually, Requiem for Mrs. J has hidden depths. Vuletic and his team make sparing but effective use of droning, eerie, unnatural sound design and hallucinatory images to evoke Jelena’s scrambled mental state. Out of the blue, they also include a glorious straight-to-camera musical interlude that lifts the mood from mournful wake to lusty celebration.
Production companies: SEE Film Pro, Geopoly, Skopje Film Studio, Non-Stop Production, Surprise Alley
Cast: Mirjana Karanovic, Jovana Gavrilovic, Danica Nedeljkovic, Vucic Perovic, Mira Banjac
Director, screenwriter: Bojan Vuletic
Producer: Nenad Dukic
Cinematographer: Jelena Stankovic
Editor: Vladimir Pavlovski
Sound designer: Boris Trayanov
Production designer: Zorana Petrov
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama Special)
Sales: Soul Food, Belgrade
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