'These Are the Rules' ('Takva su pravila'): Venice Review

Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia
Jasna Zalica in "These Are the Rules'
A melancholy familial and social drama told with compelling restraint

The vicious beating of a Zagreb teenager opens his parents' eyes to the meager protection society affords them in this small but effective film from Croatia

The blunt finality of a death certificate sputtering out of a clunky old printer is illustrative of the way bad news is delivered in the no-frills milieu of Croatian writer-director Ognjen Svilicic's These Are the Rules. Set in the bleak suburbs of Zagreb, this sobering, slow-burn domestic drama shows an impressive rigor in the economy and austerity with which it observes the rippling aftereffects of senseless violence in a world of bureaucratic indifference.

Static opening images of grim low-income housing blocks squatting on the edge of a busy motorway set the scene as well as the visual scheme. There’s minimal camera movement in the work here of French cinematographer Crystel Fournier, who has shot all of Celine Sciamma's films, including this year’s Cannes gem Girlhood. In addition to the formal shooting style, the strict use of only diegetic sound and music intensifies the ultra-naturalistic focus on the tragedy that strikes a very ordinary family.

Inspired by real events, the story concerns mild-mannered bus driver Ivo (Emir Hadzihafizbegovic) and his wife, Maja (Jasna Zalica), who live modestly in a drab apartment with their typically sullen and distant 17-year-old son, Tomica (Hrvoje Vladisavljevic). Marginally more communicative with the suffocating mother who dotes on him than with his father, Tomica declines to come out of his room when he returns home after a late night. When he does finally emerge, his bloodied, bruised face reveals he's taken a severe beating.

Tomica explains only that he got into a fight, refusing to share further details. And while he agrees to go to the hospital for X-rays, the doctor sends him home after a perfunctory glance. However, the next day his parents find him unconscious in the bathroom. He's rushed to hospital and put into an induced coma while being treated for serious head trauma.

The performances of Hadzihafizbegovic and Zalica are quite wrenching, even while displaying little outward emotion. The couple is too stunned at first to react to what's happening, and too conditioned in their roles as good, law-abiding citizens to question whether doctors and hospital staff are giving them all the information they need. Only with each other do they wonder why the first doctor to see Tomica failed to detect the extent of his injury.

That passive acceptance and inability to protest — to challenge authority or demand answers — becomes even more soul-crushing to watch when Ivo and Maja go to the cops. Tomica's girlfriend Tea (Veronika Mach), of whose existence his father was not even aware, shows them a video posted on Facebook and since removed. They see footage of their son being kicked repeatedly on the street at night by a high school bully, while others watch. But the police merely give them paperwork to fill out, informing them that the video is inadmissible as evidence and that crimes involving minors are tricky matters.

The film's steady accretion of pathos is rendered all the more powerful by its understatement. When Ivo seeks his own vigilante justice, it's with quiet resolve and what seems like borderline disbelief at the discovery that such steps are his only recourse.

However, the drama resonates not because of any display of movie-ish payback. What lingers is the affecting sense of a couple enduring a devastating ordeal together. At the start of the film they seem to be going through the motions of their daily lives with more signs of mutual irritation than affection. By the end, their household routines provide their sole comfort.

Production companies: Maxima Film, KinoElektron, in association with Biberche Productions, Trice Films, HRT
Cast: Emir Hadzihafizbegovic, Jasna Zalica, Hrvoje Vladisavljevic, Veronika Mach
Director-screenwriter: Ognjen Svilicic
Producers: Damir Teresak, Janja Kralj
Director of photography: Crystel Fournier
Production designer: Ivan Veljaca
Costume designer: Katarina Zaninovic
Editor: Atanas Georgiev
Sales: Urban Distribution International

No rating, 78 minutes