Alienation (Otchuzhdenie): Venice Review

A starkly composed and too obliquely told story of a man who wants to obtain a baby.

Bulgarian director Milko Lazarov's stark debut feature stars Greek "Dogtooth" actor Christos Stergioglou as a man who wants to buy a baby in Bulgaria.

Having a baby is no picnic in Alienation, the stark debut feature of Bulgarian director Milko Lazarov, though many viewers might think that making an engaging arthouse drama apparently isn’t one either after seeing this Venice Film Festival premiere.

Set entirely in the rural frontier area between Greece and Bulgaria, this austere story of a Greek man who wants to buy a baby across the border is told with such torpor and in such an indirect fashion that it often plays like a parody of an arthouse film. Produced by Bulgarian actor Christo Jivkov (who played John in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ), this Greek-language item -- though there’s not all that much dialog to begin with -- will have a tough time even as a festival item, much less stand any chance of a commercial future.  

Yorgos (Greek actor Christos Stergioglou, the father from Dogtooth) lives in an isolated house in the countryside with his wife, Elena (Iva Ognyanova) and his elderly, bed-ridden mother (Dora Markova). The couple has passionless sex on the floor next to their conjugal bed but doesn’t seem to share much else, except -- audiences will have to infer from what happens later -- a desire to have a baby together.

Yorgos prepares a tank in the trunk of his car that -- again, it has to be inferred -- will serve to transport the baby he’ll buy in Bulgaria back into Greece unseen. But once in Bulgaria he runs into an unforeseen complication: the surrogate mother (Mariana Jikich, who has a mesmerizing face) hasn’t gone into labor yet, which leads to them going back to Yorgos’ home where the unborn will be delivered during a raging thunderstorm that gives the much-anticipated birth something almost biblical.

It’s clear that Lazarov, who co-wrote the film with Kitodar Todorov and Georgi Tenev, prefers visuals over explanatory dialog and the film is indeed less of a documentary than a tale with mythical overtones, though it’s set in the present. However, there’s a point when a story becomes too oblique to follow because crucial information is lacking or unclear and that"s what happens here. Any emotional identification with the characters is also impossible, which wouldn’t be a problem if at least their motives were clear, which they are not.

Some elements, such as the entourage of the Bulgarian mother that travels to Greece with her and includes a person one assumes must be her deaf-mute brother, are never explained at all, which is unfortunate, as Lazarov has some good directorial instincts. The practically immobile camerawork, shot on slightly grainy 16mm, features some neat compositions and the use of sound is also impressive, with the soundscapes occasionally overlapping between scenes to offer something more evocative than just ambient sound.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)
Production companies: BNT, Red Carpet
Cast: Christos Stergioglou, Mariana Jikich, Ovanes Torosian, Neda Iskrenova, Iva Ognyanova, Kitodar Todorov, Dora Markova
Director: Milko Lazarov
Screenwriters: Milko Lazarov, Kitodar Todorov, Georgi Tenev
Producer: Christo Jivkov
Director of photography: Kaloyan Bozhilov
Production designer: Vanina Geleva
Costume designer: Iva Dencheva
Editor: Veselka Kiryakova
No rating, 83 minutes.