‘The Invocation of Enver Simaku’: Film Review
In Spaniard Marco Lledo Escartin’s debut, a journalist investigating his partner’s death gets caught up in the supernatural side of life in Albania.
An off-the-wall but strangely compelling piece of supernatural horror, The Invocation of Enver Simaku is at best wonderfully distinctive and at worst pretentious, but its ambition means that it’s never dull. The concept of this cultish little Albania-set item — man seeks to solve mystery of wife’s death during a political uprising — is straightforward enough, but debut director Marco Lledo Escartin then twists it into all sorts of interesting shapes, ending up with a flawed but engaging potpourri of thriller, found footage and political history that revels satisfyingly in its own oddity and refuses to be tied down by genre considerations.
Beyond producing territories, interest in Simaku is likely to be limited to niche horror fests. But touchingly, in Albania (a country that manages two or three domestic releases a year), its late April release has been a bit of a media event.
The doom-laden, inflected voiceover by German actor (and resident in Spain) Julien J. Blaschke suggests early on that we’ll be visiting some literal and metaphorical dark places. The dark places are in Albania, where in 1997, TV journalist Julien (Blaschke) is recording a TV documentary with his partner Angela. Hearing shots in the street, they rush out to find themselves in the midst of rioting, and Angela is murdered. The images are historical, and Lledo Escartin is broadly faithful to the facts, since during early 1997 a civil war took place in the country, leading to the toppling of the government and around 2,000 deaths.
Twenty years later, Julien returns to uncover the reasons behind Angela’s sudden, traumatizing death. The first half-hour of his pursuit offers fascinating documentary insights into how ancient folk beliefs were allowed to flourish following the 40-year ban by Enver Hoxhas’ Communist government on religious practice, making Albania the world’s first atheist state. The real-life political context is never far from the surface, and whether or not it’s true that Hoxha instigated the X-Files-type anti-paranormal police unit that the film needs for its plot, you can’t fault the script for getting things so well into place that it sounds plausible.
Lledo Escartin has a lot of fun with this. "How simple are the facts, how complex the explanations," murmurs Julien in his finest Herzog monotone, and he’s not far wrong; events are not always clearly laid out, and the script sometimes assumes a basic knowledge of Albanian history that’s rarely found in the 21st-century multiplex.
Angela’s death came at the hands of two brothers of Enver Simaku (Ferran Gadea), who lay in a coma for 30 years and was apparently possessed by a Albanian spirit-demon called the Kukuth that lives inside people and devours their souls. Julien travels south to interview Simaku’s parents in a scene of utter weirdness that features one of Albania’s best-known actresses, the veteran Tinka Kurti, beautifully playing Simaku’s mother. The old couple’s ramshackle home, replete with hanged teddy bear over the front door, gives free creative rein to the imagination of art director Pau Colomina.
“You come,” an exorcist points out to Julien, “from a culture with a spiritual deficit.” Julien himself inevitably starts to have brief glimpses of otherworldly figures. This is in line with his own belief that supernatural events may be real or they may be suggested, but that it doesn’t matter so long as the recipient perceives them as real.
Julien, bald, skinny, buttoned-down and displaying a neatly knotted hipster beard, pursues his goal with a single-minded intensity, delivering lines of philosophy lite that it takes a German accent to pull off if everyone isn’t going to collapse laughing. The dialogue in general is the weakest thing about the film, sometimes feeling stilted and recited, and there are occasional charming, accidentally poetic mistranslations — the reference, for example, to Simaku’s "without-life body."
On the upside, Lledo Escartin’s obvious affinity for Albania means that the pic often resonates with the sheer atmosphere of the place. Amongs other locations, the lonely lagoon where Julien reflects on things (and that was apparently Hoxha’s favorite place), the towns and villages he passes through and an abandoned monastery with a cellar containing hundreds of skulls make for a credibly atmospheric backdrop for this peculiar little story.
Editor Sergio Dies, who did such terrific work on Isaki Lacuesta’s 2018 San Sebastian winner Between Two Waters, is key to pulling together the different strands of a film that is so diffuse that it could easily fall apart at any moment, mixing as it does found footage and found audio, documentary, talking heads interviews and police procedural. Manu Ortega’s orchestral score is overused, sometimes to the point of distracting from the action.
Production companies: Pegatum Transmedia, Paspop Media
Cast: Julien J. Blaschke, Paula Baixauli, Tinka Kurti, Laertis Vasiliou, Mariana Talpalaru, Ferran Gadea
Director-screenwriter: Marco Lledó Escartín
Executive producers: Clara Ruiperez de Azcarate, Jose Lledo, Marco Lledo Escartin
Director of photography: María Santolaria
Art directors: Pau Colomina
Editor: Sergi Dies
Composer: Manu Ortega
Sales: Pegatum Transmedia