'Daybreak' ('Dita za fill'): Film Review

Courtesy of Wide
A slice of Albanian miserabilism.

Ornela Kapetani headlines this debut feature from director Gentian Koci, which represents Albania in the foreign-language Oscar derby.

A single mother looks after a bedridden elderly lady in Tirana in Daybreak (Dita za fill), the Albanian entry in this season’s foreign-language film Oscar race. Uncompromisingly downbeat, this story of a woman who goes to increasingly great lengths to protect herself and her baby from utter destitution isn’t an easy watch. Debuting director Gentian Koci demonstrates an impressive — if also somewhat monotonous — formal rigor and Ornela Kapetani’s committed lead performance interiorizes a world of anguish and resentment that should appeal to audiences on the more hardcore end of the art house segment. After its world premiere in Sarajevo, this unembellished and small-scale slice of miserabilism is currently making the rounds of festivals, including Warsaw and Cineast Film Festival Luxembourg. 

The stern-faced and dark-haired Violeta (Kapetani), edging toward 40, has a baby and practically no money. Three months behind on her rent, she’s lucky to have found a job looking after Sophie (Suzana Prifti), the aging and very ill mother of Ariana (Jonida Beqo), a French-Albanian citizen who needs to leave for France to try and save her marriage with a Frenchman. There’s a suggestion that the reason Leta was fired from her previous job, as a nurse at a hospital, is that she was involved in euthanizing a male patient who might have been the father of her child.

But Koci, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t much care for backstories. Instead, the film unfolds entirely in the present, with Sophie, who is probably aware of Violeta’s past, beseeching her to let her go in one of her few moments in which she manages to speak. “I’m in pain. I can’t stand my own filth,” she hoarsely begs her caretaker, who needs to clean her regularly because Sophie has lost control of her bowel movements. But Violeta soldiers on, no doubt also because she needs to protect her only source of income.

The pebble in the pond that will upset the flat waters of the fragile status quo is Violeta’s cruel eviction by her landlord. Homeless and with a baby, she shuts down and goes into survival mode, becoming tougher and more cruel herself. With one phone call to France, she gets Sophie’s night nurse (Adele Gjoka) fired for having brought over a lover to Sophie’s apartment once. She then moves into the elderly lady’s apartment with her baby boy, at least having secured a round-the-clock job for herself and a roof over their heads. The director sketches this shift very economically, in just a few quick scenes that force audiences to put one and one together and, for a moment, things seem to get a little bit better. Violeta even constructs a rapport with the rugged mailman (Kasem Hoxa) who comes by once a month to pay Sophie’s pension, though as time goes on, it becomes unclear whether she’s being friendly with him or she’s planning something more sinister. 

The film offers an unvarnished look at how one person, apparently without any relatives and shunned by the single friend she has because of her past, is almost forced to become, if not immoral, then at least desperate and amoral in order to survive. That this happens to someone who is a caretaker is an irony that’s there for the taking. In a subdued and assiduous performance, Kapetani rarely explodes into tears or rage, with her Violeta instead constantly keeping her head down, clenching her teeth and doing what she sees is the probably the only option left to her. It’s difficult to warm to Violeta as a character because neither her facial expressions nor the few words she exchanges with others directly betray all that much, with audiences having to piece together an idea of her motives by themselves, even if it is clear her difficult situation is the result of her marginalization and an increasingly shocking lack of options. But Kapetani does sell the woman’s stubborn commitment to keep forging ahead no matter what.

(Cryptic spoiler ahead.) Despite everything that has come before it, however, the lead’s final act of desperation still doesn’t quite ring true, as if a couple of scenes are missing that help foreshadow the very dark direction in which the story is finally headed. Koci is also a little bit too eager to turn a moldy, leaky ceiling — caused by water problems in the apartment above Sophie’s — into a rather obvious metaphor, with these weaknesses in the writing betraying the writer-director’s relative inexperience in the domain of feature-length fiction. 

Koci’s background in documentary filmmaking can be gleaned from the film’s verité-style absence of a traditional score and the way it embeds this gritty story in the tattered fabric of the Albanian capital, even if most of the movie is set indoors. Greek cinematographer Ilias Adamis, who earlier worked with Kapetani on the Greek abduction drama The Daughter, shoots everything in rigorously composed fixed shots, with the pic thus lacking the immediacy of the handheld socio-realism from directors like the Dardenne brothers. The payoff mimics another Belgian filmmaker, with Koci opting for the same kind of visual and narrative release as the one devised by Joachim Lafosse in his Isabelle Huppert-starring family drama Private Property.

Production companies: Artalb Film, Graal Films
Cast: Ornela Kapetani, Suzana Prifti, Kasem Hoxha, Hermes Kasimati, Adele Gjoka, Jonida Beqo
Writer-director-producer: Gentian Koci
Director of photography: Ilias Adamis
Production designer: Ilia Kolka
Costume designer: Emir Turkeshi Gramo
Editors: Christos Giannokopoulos, Bonita Papastathi
Music: Mardit Lleshi
Casting: Gentian Koci
Venue: Cineast Central and Eastern European Film Festival Luxembourg
Sales: Wide Management

In Albanian
95 minutes