Adria Blues: Santa Barbara Review

Through a deft comedy lens, Slovenia-based filmmaker Miroslav Mandic shines a tender light on the contemporary Balkans.

A Slovenian ensemble comedy pits nostalgia and other delusions against the here-and-now.

A disparate group of characters in various stages of desperation converge at a seaside hotel in Adria Blues, a deft and well-cast Slovenian comedy. Tender and wry, employing both broad strokes and well-observed detail in its look at generational angst, Miroslav Mandic’s feature revolves around a rock star of the ’80s who’s been depressed and performance-averse since fleeing his war-torn Bosnia. The engaging film received its U.S. premiere as a competition selection at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.

From his hangdog expression to his rocker coif, Senad Basic is right in tune as Toni Riff, who hasn’t played his guitar publicly in 20 years and isn’t willing to take a menial job. While he idles away his days with the vintage videogame Tetris, his wife, Sonja (Mojca Funkl), supports them as "Linda Love," providing phone-sex services — within earshot of the jealous and humiliated Toni, and even while they’re driving from the capital city, Ljubljana, to a weekend getaway on the coast.

That holiday turns out to be a gig that Sonja booked for Toni without his knowledge. The comeback concert of sorts is scheduled to take place at the seaside Hotel Adria, a shabbily picturesque place owned by Sonja’s client Max (Peter Musevski), who has given it a rock-themed makeover. He’s a baby boomer who holds Toni’s music dear, as does his Millennial musician son, who looks forward to sharing the small terrace stage with his idol. But as the day progresses, Toni remains adamant that he won’t perform, and spends most of his time cowering under the covers in a room named after him.

The hotel — a terrific location that Mandic makes the most of, thanks to Jure Cernec’s fluid camerawork — is also the site of a would-be lovers’ rendezvous, which turns out instead to be a confrontation between mistress (Maja Taranis) and wife (Iva Babie). The women have time for arm-wrestling and mutual advice while the man who’s been lying to both of them (Branko Zavrsan) detours to a New Age plant nursery, where he partakes in a full-moon drum circle and some actual tree-hugging. That sequence skates close to caricature, yet manages to avoid condescension and to tap into a sincere sense of searching, even if the philanderer’s search is instigated by a need, not unlike Toni’s, to shirk responsibility.

Throughout Adria Blues, Slovenia-based writer-director Mandic, who was born in Sarajevo and attended film school in the U.S., effects an adroit balance of the borderline-cartoonish and the deeply felt, with the performances of Basic and Funkl giving the story its heart — funny, sorrowful and charged with sexual chemistry — and the supporting characters providing commentary on the region’s challenges, progress and human vulnerabilities.

They include a couple of materialists who can’t fathom the artistic temperament or Toni’s indifference to the promise of a paycheck. One is the salesman (Gregor Zorc) who sets up his massage chair at the sea-facing edge of the hotel property, eager to find a buyer for the contraption so that he can settle his debts. The second materialist is his creditor, a small-time crime boss (Franjo Dijak) whose swagger is tempered by the inhaler he carries for his asthma. Wondering about Toni’s refusal to play, the gangster conjectures that "we're too small for him" — hitting on part of the truth: Toni’s pride, which has stunted him and turned him into a child.

Without excusing his withdrawal from life, the film subtly shows that it’s a defense against the trauma of war. Toni Riff’s redemption is the obvious objective of the story, but Mandic doesn’t arrive at his goal with any of the self-congratulatory triumph that would define a more formulaic movie. There are no pat answers in this surprising and bittersweet comedy.

Venue: Santa Barbara Film Festival
Production: Gustav Film, Filmostovje, Senca Studio
Cast: Senad Basic, Mojca Funkl, Peter Musevski, Maja Taranis, Franjo Dijak, Gregor Zorc, Iva Babie, Branko Zavrsan
Writer-director: Miroslav Mandic
Producers: Frenk Celarc, Miroslav Mandic, Ida Weiss
Executive producer: Frenk Celcarc
Director of photography: Jure Cernec
Production designer: Matjaz Pavlovec
Music: Aldo Kumar
Co-producers: Boris T. Matic, Amra Baksic Camo
Costume designer: Emil Cerar
Editor: Stanko Kostanjevec
No MPAA rating; 91 min.