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Blood feuds, mobsters, illegal immigrants, jokes about communist dictator Enver Hoxha — Swiss director Pierre Maillard has definitely padded his latest film with nearly each and every old cliche there is about Albania. Compounded by its equally hackneyed storyline of a Western European man helping a young woman escape from her barbaric Balkan clan, Across the Sea is easily the most vacuous entry in a recent line of films in which foreign directors zero in on supposedly dated rituals in Albania’s rural hinterlands.
Unlike The Forgiveness of Blood and Sworn Virgin, two flawed films salvaged at least by engaging narratives and nuanced performances, Across the Sea offers merely superficial visual exotica. Bar the admittedly beautiful evocation of Albania’s rugged rural landscapes, everything else in Maillard’s film is out at sea. Apart from programs in desperate need for some southeastern European flavor — cue its debut at Montreal’s World Film Festival in September — it’s hard to see the Swiss-Albanian co-production landing many more bookings on the circuit after its two “homecoming” festival bows at Tirana on Oct. 31 and then at Geneva next week.
In the film, the protagonist, Jean, is nicknamed “the bear.” Indeed, Carlo Brandt mostly growls and grunts his way through in his turn as a war photographer haunted by years of observing death and mayhem up close. Rather than conveying Jean’s guilt about being merely a camera-wielding vulture in an catastrophic age, Brandt’s one-note performance relates only obnoxious self-pity. Then again, Maillard is perhaps ultimately to blame for having penned a screenplay in which self-indulgence is dressed up first as catharsis and then as chivalry.
While revisiting the place where he took his last photos on the field — of the brutal assault and murder of a young woman by militiamen in Kosovo in the late 1990s — Jean runs into Mira (Kristina Ago), whose plans of starting her life anew are derailed when her family catches on and kills her lover. Believing Mira has tarnished the honor of the family — the boy is from a rival clan, and she is already pregnant — her father sends his bungling son and nephew to kill her as well. It’s here when Jean comes into play, as he takes Mira under his wing and escorts her across Albania’s harsh terrains towards the Adriatic and then across the sea to Italy.
With Mira as thinly-sketched as Jean — her bubbliness is astounding, given the recent death of her lover and the uncertainty she is confronted with — the pair’s bonding is rushed and devoid of empathy or chemistry. As they trod along, they become ciphers in Maillard’s vision of a land awash with murderous outlaws and mafia-controlled human trafficking rings. Just like Jean, whose mission is as much about his own redemption as Mira’s well-being, the writer-director is hell bent on shaping Across the Sea as a conscientious gesture about understanding the sorry state of the world out there.
And this world has remained, indeed, out there. Maillard’s lofty ambitions are undermined by the many anachronisms in the film, with scant regard shown in its peddling of cultural stereotypes — Jean against the unwashed local thugs, or the tangential stand-off between a meek Italian priest (Michele Venitucci) and an amoral Albanian gangster (Bruno Shllaku, Sworn Virgin) — and also the facts on the ground. The technical expertise on show only highlights Across the Sea as a piece of exotic confectionery, designed for middle-brow audiences seeking a feel-good fantasy about the triumph of human goodness in what the film is keen to portray as Europe’s lawless eastern frontiers.
Venue: Tirana International Film Festival
Production company: CAB Productions, Zoofilms, Eclipse Film Production
Cast: Carlo Brandt, Kristina Ago, Tinka Kurti, Rael Hoxha
Director: Pierre Maillard
Producers: Jean-Louis Porchet, Gerard Ruey
Executive Producers: Agim Halili, Francisco Lopez
Screenwriter: Pierre Maillard
Director of photography: Aldo Mugnier
Production designer: Daniel Mercier
Costume designer: Gerta Oparaku
Editor: Jean Reusser
Music: Fatos Qerimaj
Casting: Vasjan Lami, Vittoria Losavio
International Sales: CAB Productions
In Italian, Albanian, French and English
No rating; 106 minutes
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