A Stranger (Obrana i Zastita): Berlin Review

A Stranger Obrana i Zastita Still - H 2013

A Stranger Obrana i Zastita Still - H 2013

Bleak Balkan drama lightened by bitter humor.

The Kafkaesque debut feature from director Bobo Jelcic personalizes Bosnia's post-war traumas.

BERLIN -- The city of Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovena is world-famous for its architectural treasures, especially the 16th century Old Bridge, which was destroyed in the Balkan wars of the 1990s but reconstructed in 2004. However, the city’s celebrated tourist sites are nowhere to be seen in Mostar-born writer-director Bobo Jelcic’s debut feature, a wordy piece of contemporary social realism that mostly takes place inside crumbling apartment blocks and soulless municipal offices.

A downbeat psychological portrait of a city still traumatized by the post-war divisions between its two main cultures, the Muslim Bosniaks and the Christian Croats, A Stranger is a thoughtful and accomplished first film. The surface bleakness will prove a tough sell to overseas viewers with limited knowledge of the region. But connoisseurs of Balkan cinema, especially its deep seam of gallows humor, will have their patience rewarded.

Setting the tone from the opening scene, A Stranger opens with a death that occurs half off-screen, plunging the hangdog middle-aged anti-hero Slavko (Bogdan Diklic) into a stark dilemma. As a Croat, should he attend the funeral of his Muslim neighbor and risk the disapproval of his own tribe? This tension becomes an elephant in the room between Slavko and his long-suffering wife Milena (Nada Djurevska), stoking their already bitter arguments.

Friends and relatives of the dead man begin arriving for the funeral, followed by Slavko’s surly grown-up son Kreso (Rakan Rushaidat), who makes clear his contempt for his father’s generation during a wounding exchange in a public park. A divided soul in a divided city, Slavko yearns for release from the burden of history, even to the point of fantasizing about suicide.

Had it been made with high seriousness, A Stranger might have been a grueling watch. Fortunately Jelcic leavens a potentially dour and parochial subject with fatalistic Balkan humor and a universally accessible sense of bleak absurdism. Two lengthy scenes of Slavko being kept waiting indefinitely in a local bureaucrat’s office are pure Kafka, and pointedly extend far beyond the time limits of conventional film grammar.

The restless, hand-held camera work and drab, washed-out color scheme heighten the sense of real-time immersion in these stifled, stunted, suspicion-filled lives. But there is warmth behind the pain. While Jelcic mocks Slavko, he also empathizes with his fate. Like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, he is a pompous relic of a bygone age, but also a vulnerable everyman slowly being crushed by forces beyond his control. And like Mostar itself, he ends the film in limbo, his internal divisions unresolved.

Venue: Berlin Forum screening
Production Companies: Spiritus Movens, Kadar Production, Croatian National Television
Producers: Zdenka Gold, Tomislav Bubalo, Tomislav Topic, Josip Popovac, Mislav Brumec
Cast: Bogdan Diklic, Nada Djurevska, Ivana Roscic, Rakan Rushaidat
Director: Bobo Jelcic
Screenwriter: Bobo Jelcic
Cinematographer: Erol Zubcevic
Editor: Ivana Fumic
Sales Company: Spiritus Movens, Zagreb
Unrated, 87 minutes