'Cure – The Life of Another': Sarajevo Review

Okofilm Productions
The ghosts of a guilty conscience

A lonely teenager is haunted by her friend’s death in this good-looking Balkan psychodrama

A prickly friendship between two teenage girls turns to tragedy in this absorbing rites-of-passage drama, which blends psychological realism with teasing hints of the supernatural. Set in 1993, the story takes place in Dubrovnik on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, a city still in recovery from shelling and siege conditions during the Balkan wars. But the aftershocks of conflict are only dramatically present as background radiation, a lingering emotional trauma for Dubrovnik's mostly female population whose menfolk never returned from battle.

Blending autobiographical elements with a fictionalized twist on real events, Cure: The Life of Another is Croatia-born, Switzerland-based writer-director Andrea Staka's belated follow-up to her award-winning 2006 debut Fraulein. Screened at both the Sarajevo and Locarno film festivals last month, this sophisticated psychodrama feels like a natural candidate for further festival bookings. Overseas theatrical interest will be niche, but pan-European co-production credits, strong performances and positive word of mouth should help.

The film’s impressively mature novice star is 14-year-old Sylvie Marinkovic, who combines haunted intensity with a sharp-angled beauty reminiscent of the young Nastassja Kinski. She plays Linda, a solitary new arrival in Dubrovnik. Though born in Croatia, Linda escaped the recent wars by relocating to Switzerland, but has now returned with her doctor father following his divorce from her Swiss mother. Her mixed-up nationality only adds to her isolation at high school, where her only friend is the emotionally manipulative and sexually flirtatious Eta (Lucia Radulovic).

One afternoon, on the rocky slopes high above the Adriatic, the hormonally charged tensions between the girls take a shock turn when Linda fights back against Eta’s power games, shoving her off the cliffside to her death. A police investigation absolves her of blame, but Linda remains deeply traumatized by guilt and fuzzy about her motives. Wearing the dead girl’s clothes and reading from her private diaries, she performs a bizarre kind of penance, becoming a surrogate Eta to the grieving mother (Marija Skaricic) and grandmother (Mirjana Karanovic). Meanwhile, Eta’s ghost becomes a constant presence, haunting and taunting Linda at every turn. But is she a phantom menace or just a guilty hallucination?

Elegantly shot by Martin Gschlacht, who regularly works with Austrian director Jessica Hausner, Cure – The Life of Another is full of striking visual poetry. Usually thronging with tourists, the ruggedly handsome stone boulevards of Dubrovnik are magically transformed into ghostly, depopulated, otherworldly spaces. A hallucinatory shot featuring Linda and Eta back-to-back with their long hair intertwined makes a powerful statement both visually and psychologically.

As the mood darkens and Linda’s mental state worsens, the story seems to be heading towards psycho-horror terrain with subliminal echoes of Peter Weir’s cryptic classic Picnic at Hanging Rock and Darren Aronofsky’s identity-blurring diva-fest Black Swan. But Štaka ultimately favors subtlety over sensationalism, steering Linda back towards a more realistic reconciliation with her family, her dead friend and her own crushing sense of guilt.

Cure - The Life of Another is a nuanced meditation on the lingering losses of war, the hidden wounds of exile and the fissile love-hate dynamics of teenage friendship, especially between girls. It may leave some viewers unsatisfied with its stagey supernatural elements, ambivalent resolution and sketchily drawn minor characters. But Štaka’s haunted coming-of-age drama still leaves behind a potent, melancholy afterglow that feels greater than the sum of its modest ingredients.

Production companies: Okofilm Productions, Živa Produkcija, Deblokada

Starring: Sylvie Marinković, Lucia Radulović, Marija Škaričic, Mirjana Karanović, Leon Lučev

Director: Andrea Štaka

Writers: Andrea Štaka, Thomas Imbach, Marie Kreutzer

Producers: Thomas Imbach, Andrea Štaka, Damir Ibrahimović, Jasmila Žbanić, Leon Lučev

Cinematographer: Martin Gschlacht

Editor: Tom La Belle

Music: Milica Paranosić

Sales company: Okofilm Productions, Zurich

Unrated, 83 minutes