Three teenagers from Serbia, all living in an institution for young people with special needs, aren’t exactly intent on expressing their feelings vocally in Ivan Ikic’ deceptively titled second fiction feature, Oasis (Oaza).
The talented writer-director’s frenzied but vibrant debut, Barbarians, from 2014 but set in 2008, looked at the lost generation of adolescents coming of age after the Balkan Wars, who had no people to look up to and who were desperate to simply feel something. Judging by his more sedately observed sophomore outing, not much has changed for teens in the intervening years except for the fact that the same message now feels more familiar and less urgent.
This pushes Oasis, a Venice Days premiere title, into more generic another-slab-of-Balkan-miserabilism territory. That will be enough for some festivals but will make theatrical action beyond specialized venues and regional showcases tricky.
The most interesting thing about Oasis is something that isn’t necessarily obvious for audiences who go in cold: It was shot with three non-professional youngsters from an institution like the one depicted. This gives their characters a welcome jolt of documentary-like authenticity. The problem is that Ikic, who is also credited with the screenplay, seems to think this is enough to keep pushing his slender smudge of a narrative forward, which despite some shocking moments feels mostly as slow as molasses.
A peppy promotional spot from the 1970s about the kind of establishment portrayed in Oasis opens the proceedings, with a chirpy voiceover talking about the people there who are “unfortunate human beings unable to outgrow the permanent childhood stage.” Sadly, the use of interesting or unexpected juxtapositions is absent for the rest of the film, as Ikic then cuts to the less-chipper present, which is divided into sections named after the three protagonists (to no real apparent benefit).
First up is Marija (Marijana Novakov), a new arrival at the institution who takes a fancy to a tenebrous, mustachioed boy named Robert (Valentino Zenuni), who refuses to speak. After some stolen glances, the two start spending some time together and seem to enjoy each other’s company, even though more specific details are hard to come by, given that they don’t say much.
Unsteady handheld camerawork follows the duo around outside and shows a lot of the backs of their heads. This visual trope hasn’t felt fresh for a few decades now; a Dardenne-brothers-inspired level of grit has become the norm for European films set in lower-class milieus where prospects are at best, well, unsteady. But the widescreen images of cinematographer Milos Jacimovic do offer some variation, especially indoors, where the mise-en-scene occasionally highlights the protagonists’ sense of alienation and general unease in more static shots.
A touching moment sees Marija show her scars on her arms to the object of her affection. This seems to suggest she has regularly cut herself in the past, which imparts the otherwise quite sparse proceedings with a welcome sense of foreboding. But it is hard to get a good read on Marija, with what little we learn about her coming from the very patient people who work at the institution (Marusa Majer, Goran Bogdan). They are being eavesdropped on by the charges seemingly around the clock, as if they, too, like the audience, are hungry for every little morsel of information about themselves.
Parts two and three focus on Dragana (Tijana Markovic) and Robert, respectively, with the former complicating matters for Marija as she turns out to be Robert’s sort-of girlfriend, reshuffling the duo’s relationship into something of a triangle. Their odd menage is then complicated by behavior from Robert that’s kept entirely off-screen, making it hard to get a read on his intentions or the effect on the ladies. That said, the dramatic happenings don’t seem to really faze either the trio or their caretakers, with the behavior of the latter two — which leads to the introduction of another one of the youngsters’ peers (Milica Djindjic) — especially illogical.
When shocking things do happen, they almost always seem to do so sotto voce, which might mirror the near-catatonic state in which the characters find themselves but which makes it hard for the viewer to get invested in them. The choice to work with people who can use their own experiences to draw the people they play is laudable of course. But since it feels like there’s so little in terms of narrative or character development for any of them, the two-hour running time is impossible to sustain. The one thing that audiences will start to feel, just like the characters they are watching, is trapped.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Giornate degli autori )
Production companies: Sense Production, Tramal Films, Kepler Film, Les Films d’Antoine, SCAA/Pro Ba
Cast: Marijana Novakov, Tijana Markovic, Valentino Zenuni, Milica Djindjic, Sasa Strugar, Marusa Majer, Goran Bogdan
Writer-Director: Ivan Ikic
Producers: Milan Stojanovic, Marija Stojanovic
Cinematography: Milos Jacimovic
Production design: Dragana Bacovic
Costume design: Milica Kolaric
Editing: Dragan Von Petrovic
Sales: Heretic Outreach
No rating, 122 minutes