'Koza': Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A winner about a loser

The new film from Slovak director Ivan Ostrochovsky ('Velvet Terrorists') is a minimalist odyssey about a former Olympic champion who's forced to fight again

A former Olympic boxing champion from Slovakia agrees to come out of retirement so that he can corral the money needed to pay for his girlfriend’s abortion in Koza, a minimalist but very effective fiction-documentary hybrid from director Ivan Ostrochovsky (Velvet Terrorists). Starring the titular real-life boxer, who competed in the 1996 Atlanta Games, as a character very close to himself, the film spins a delicate but seductive and darkly absurd story about a man who’s so out of shape and out of synch with the world that he risks literally being beaten to death in order to stop his girlfriend from having another child. After its Berlinale premiere, this will make a small victory lap around the festival circuit, though theatrical bookings outside of Slovakia and co-producing Czech Republic might be something of an uphill climb.

Ne’er-do-well former champion Peter (Peter Balaz), who’s nicknamed Koza ("Goat" in Slovak), is told by his girlfriend, Misa (Stanislava Bongilajova), to find the couple of hundred Euros needed for an abortion because she’s pregnant and they can’t afford to have a second child. There’s a lot of irony in this seemingly simple story setup, starting with the fact that Peter, who barely scrapes by collecting scrap metal in lieu of a job, can’t even pay for the abortion that will save his family money in the long run. To make matters even more complicated, Peter would actually like to keep the child, since Misa’s first one isn’t actually his.

The solution Koza finally comes up with, having first tried in vain to borrow the cash -- the bleakly humorous response to his request for money: "Do I look like I sponsor abortions?" --, is to enter the ring again, trying to recapture some of that 1996 glory. Zvonko (Zvonko Lakcevic), with whom he has a love-hate rapport, will coach him and act as his driver, all for the friendly price of just 75 percent of their earnings. The only catch: Koza’s strength and willingness to fight have evaporated in the two decades since his glory days and he’s become so bad that he barely makes it through the first round of the scheduled fights and often, the organizers refuse to pay their fee.

As the duo drives across the country and then even abroad for any fight that’ll take them, viewers will start to worry about Peter’s health, with doctors repeatedly stating he should stop fighting altogether. If not being able to pay for an abortion that will save money is ironic, then dying in order to try and get that money is some kind of next-level ironic perversity, though Ostrochovsky and co-screenwriter Marek Lescak keep everything ominously understated throughout, using the realism of the almost documentary-like mise-en-scene as a shield against potential melodrama.

Throughout the film, which is somberly shot and assembled but marbled with instances of black humor, the characters remain credible and, finally, even touching in their stubborn quest to commit themselves to what they see as the only possible solution. It obviously helps that Balaz, with his battered features and dead stare, plays someone who’s very close to his own experience -- the road trip formula is a fictional invention but the abortion story actually really happened to him some years ago -- and his rapport with Lakcevic, who’s not an actor either but who plays more of a composite role, crackles with machismo, frustration and negative chemistry. Jan Franek, an Olympic medalist from the 1980 Moscow Games, impresses in a tragicomic supporting role as a former champion-turned-smalltime chicken farmer who says he’ll help out coaching Koza.

Martin Kollar’s cinematography is key in underlining the misery, poverty and plainness that characterizes the lives of the small cast and their fictional equivalents. His unusually clinical shooting of the boxing matches, in long takes that function like establishing shots (though without having the camera subsequently move in), underlines how unspectacular, honorless and even vaguely ridiculous the fights that Koza participates in really are. Indeed, the events and people portrayed in Koza may seem minor and trivial but Ostrochovsky manages to suggest something of their tragic grandeur exactly because he keeps things real -- and really small.

Production companies: Sentimentalfilm, Endorfilm, Ceska Televize, Rozhlas a Televizia Slovenska, Punckchart Films

Cast: Peter Balaz, Zvonko Lakcevic, Jan Franek, Stanislava Bongilajova, Nikola Bongilajova, Tatiana Piussi

Director: Ivan Ostrochovsky

Screenplay: Ivan Ostrochovsky, Marek Lescak

Producers: Marek Urban, Ivan Ostrochovsky, Jiri Konecny

Co-producers: Kamila Zlatuskova, Tibor Buza, Maros Slapeta

Director of photography: Martin Kollar

Editors: Viera Cakanyova, Maros Slapeta, Matej Benes, Peter Moravek

Sales: Pluto Film


No rating, 73 minutes