'The Black Pin' ('Igla ispod praga'): Film Review

'The Black Pin' still - H 2016
Courtesy of Adriatic Western
The unorthodox adventures of an Orthodox priest.

Montenegro is staking its foreign-language Oscar hopes on Ivan Marinovic’s bittersweet comic drama about a village priest feuding with his neighbors over a property deal.

Only the fourth film ever submitted to the Academy Awards by the former Yugoslavian republic of Montenegro since it secured independence a decade ago, The Black Pin is a polished and engaging debut feature from the young writer-director Ivan Marinovic. It takes place in a remote village steeped in superstition and ritual, but where a typical conversation may involve Kanye West, smartphone contracts or shady property deals with foreign investors — ancient meets modern.

Working on his home turf, Marinovic strikes a healthy balance between bittersweet comedy and naturalistic drama, largely avoiding the boorish caricatures and overheated emotions that often characterize Balkan cinema. Opening domestically next month, The Black Pin should combine solid commercial potential in local markets while charming its way into overseas festivals. Oscar-related interest could also boost niche distribution prospects for a wry little yarn that puts a universal gloss on regionally specific themes.

The world-weary protagonist Peter (Macedonian actor Nikola Ristanovski) is an Orthodox priest whose parish centers on a small village on the Lustica Peninsula, a picturesque but impoverished stretch of mountainous woodland jutting out into the Adriatic Sea. Sarcastic, sharp-witted and handsome in a weather-beaten way, Peter is distrusted by the local menfolk but more popular with their wives. When one young woman implores him to hear her confession of lustful thoughts, he brushes her off with a recommendation to have more sex. “At your age, not doing it is a sin,” he shrugs.

Abandoned by his own wife many years before, Peter now lives with his dementia-afflicted mother Baba (veteran Yugo-cinema icon Jelisaveta “Seka” Sablic) and his surly teenage son George (Filip Klicov) in a rustic stone cottage on a sprawling plot of family land. But tensions are brewing with his neighbors, who are urgently trying to put together a large parcel of shared land to sell to a rapacious foreign developer with plans to build a golf resort complex on the site, obliterating the village but enriching the villagers.

When Peter declines to join their scheme, his neighbors try various methods to change his mind, from friendly persuasion to heavy-handed threats. They start a petition to have him replaced as priest, and even try to trick his bewildered mother into signing away the land. Meanwhile a rival priest offers Peter a separate deal to profiteer from the sale, which he rejects. Tensions hit the boiling point around the funeral of a local woman, widely considered a witch by her superstitious neighbors, the source of the “black pin” folklore of the title. Her burial ceremony degenerates into a tragicomic farce involving a runaway coffin, a chainsaw and an errant brass band.

Despite its limited resources and minuscule budget, The Black Pin is a highly assured debut that succeeds in engaging the emotions without any obvious dramatic fireworks. The performances are strong, the characterization fairly even-handed and the language enjoyably salty, while the affectionate insider’s depiction of rural Balkan life never slips into romanticized cliché. Toni Kitanovski’s plaintive, bluesy, folk-tinged score is unobtrusively effective, and the lush cinematography by Djordje Arambasic (Panama, The Disobedient) milks maximum value from Montenegro’s rugged, sun-drenched landscape.

After the anarchic funeral scene and a rowdy night of drunken confrontations, The Black Pin ties up its narrative threads a little too neatly. The finale, thick with revelations and reconciliations, feels slightly glib and anticlimactic. But by this point, Marinovic has earned his understated payoff, ending on a note of quiet grace.

Production companies: Adriatic Western, EED Productions
Cast: Nikola Ristanovski, Bogdan Diklic, Jelisaveta Sablic, Filip Klicov, Leon Lucev, Dejan ?onovic, Ljubomir Bandovic
Director-screenwriter-producer: Ivan Marinovic
Cinematographer: Djordje Arambasic
Editor: Ivan Vasic
Music: Toni Kitanovski
Sales: Soul Food Films, Belgrade

Not rated, 93 minutes