'The Kids from the Marx and Engels Street' ('Djecaci iz ulice Marksa i Engelsa'): Film Review

The Kids From Marx and Engels Street Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Galileo Productions

The Kids From Marx and Engels Street Still - H 2014

The Full Montenegro

The tiny Balkan state of Montenegro is shooting for an Oscar with this spicy hybrid of revenge thriller and rites-of-passage family saga

Breaking away from the rump of the former Yugoslavia less than 20 years ago, Montenegro is a pocket-sized nation with a total population roughly equivalent to that of Nashville, Tennessee. It barely even has a film industry at all, so we should at least applaud its chutzpah in boldly putting forward its second ever Oscar submission in the Best Foreign Language category. Directed and co-written by Nikola Vukcevic, a theater veteran with one previous feature to his name, The Kids from the Marx and Engels Street is a highly uneven revenge thriller drenched in the heady perfume of hot-blooded Balkan melodrama.

Apparently aspiring to be an allegory for Montenegro's short and turbulent history, the movie unfolds in three time periods, the earliest a flashback to 1992. After a proud basketball coach refuses to sabotage a game, he is punished with a fatal beating by henchmen working for his crooked boss Potpara (Emir Hadzihafizbegovic), a crime which is unexpectedly witnessed by the coach's teenage son Stanko (Momcilo Otasevic). Adding insult to injury, Potparo then evicts Stanko and his newly widowed, heavily pregnant mother (Ana Sofrenovic) from the family apartment that came with her late husband's job. Their new home is a cramped rooftop shack in a crumbling social housing block on Marx and Engels Street, hence the movie's title.

Two years later, Stanko is still nursing a grudge, but has blossomed into a local guitar hero in a hot young rock trio. But on the night of a career-making show at the city's sports arena, he goes missing with a illegally acquired gun, intent on revenge against Potparo. His assassination bid is thwarted, and Potparo offers Stanko a stark ultimatum: leave the country immediately or go to jail. Or even, worse still, face forced conscription into the ongoing Balkan wars.

Fast forward to 2009. Now played by Goran Bogdan, Stanko is a musician living in London. But his dormant blood feud is belatedly reawakened after he catches TV footage of Potparo, now a high-ranking sports official in newly independent Montenegro, celebrating a crucial victory by the national water polo team.  Vowing to finally settle old scores, Stanko flies back to his long-lost homeland. This also reconnects him to his 16-year-old brother Vojo (Filip Djuretic) just in time to help him lose his virginity. Strangely, Vojo hero-worships Stanko, even though he has ignored his family for 15 years. Just for reference, Podgorica is a cheap three-hour flight away from London.

The Kids from The Marx and Engels Street is bloated with a baroque excess of plot, much of it illogical and unintentionally hilarious. As the two brothers bond over their father's grave, they solemnly agree "he hated pussies, liars and cowards", which has inescapable echoes of Team America: World Police. The horny-teen sex-comedy side story is also an oddly jarring inclusion, especially a sleazy and casually homophobic episode at a brothel.

Oddly, Stanko's mother appears not to age at all in 17 years, which means she ends up looking younger than her own son. Equally bizarre is how everyone in Podgorica, including all of Stanko's former childhood friends, seems to have grown up to become prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers or pedophiles. Vukcevic's film is unlikely to boost Montenegro's tourist business.

The Kids from The Marx and Engels Street does contain some potentially appealing elements to overseas audiences, notably Dimitrije Jokovic's glossy cinematography and majestic aerial footage of Podgorica. But the dramatic tone is haywire, the dialogue often risible and the characters crudely sketched ciphers, from implausibly innocent heroes to monstrous cartoon villains. Perhaps the most charitable conclusion is that Balkan audiences will appreciate the movie's local references and overcooked intensity, but Oscar short-list compilers are less likely to be swayed by its soapy charms.

Production company: Galileo Production
Cast: Momcilo Otasevic, Goran Bogdan, Filip Djuretic, Ana Sofrenovic, Emir Hadzihafizbegovic, Branka Stanic, Andjela Micanovic
Director: Nikola Vukcevic
Screenwriters: Djordje Milosavljevic, Milica Piletic, Nikola Vukcevic
Producer: Nikola Vukcevic
Cinematographer:  Dimitrije Jokovic    
Editor: Srdjan Dido Stanojevic    
Production Designer: Stanislav Nikicevic
Music: Vladimir Moric
Sales company: Galileo Production

No rating, 96 minutes