‘The Liberation of Skopje’: Film Review

The Liberation of Skopje - Still 2- Kids - H 2016
Courtesy of MP Film  Production
A well-told, vividly personal view of history.

Croatian actor Rade Serbedzija steps behind the camera for the first time, directing a World War II drama alongside his son.

The effects of the German occupation on an extended family are viewed through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy in The Liberation of Skopje, Macedonia’s submission to the foreign-language Oscar race. Though its observations might feel familiar and aren’t always subtle, the film commendably avoids sentimentality, even in its child’s perspective, and delivers an affecting take on wartime’s unholy alliances and betrayals and the lasting consequences of guilt by association.

The feature marks the directorial debut of renowned actor Rade Serbedzija, whose many credits include Eyes Wide Shut and the Oscar-nominated Before the Rain, which was the newly independent Macedonia’s first official submission to the Academy Awards’ foreign-language category. He shares writing and helming duties with his son, Danilo Serbedzija, in their adaptation of a play by Serbian director Dusan Jovanovic that was first staged in 1980 and toured internationally — and in which both appeared, with Danilo portraying the boy at the center of the story. (The closing credits also cite a mid-’80s screenplay version by Zivojin Pavlovic as source material.)

Evocatively designed and scored, and handsomely lensed by Dejan Dimeski, the feature takes place during 1943 and ’44, when the Macedonian city Skopje was occupied by the Nazis and their Bulgarian allies. Zoran (David Todsovski) is an observant boy who can scrap and thieve with the best of them, but he also keeps a journal and has a sensitive, artistic side. In sequences that have a mildly surreal slant and a desaturated palette, he dreams of happy reunions with his father (Nebojsa Glogovac), a soldier in Tito’s partisan army, and with Renata (Marija Lapadatovic), the redheaded girl he loves and whom he watched being led, with her family and dozens of other Jews, onto a freight train.

All the characters get big, emotional moments, but none more so than Rade Serbedzija as Zoran’s uncle Gjorgji, a key figure in the local resistance movement until malicious Bulgarian officials, led by the self-dealing Gospodinov (Petar Mircevski), inflict their punishment on him, leaving him physically and mentally damaged.

With Zoran’s father on the front and Gjorgji out of commission, the women of the family — Gjorgji’s wife, Lenche (Silvija Stojanovska), and her sister, Lica, who is Zoran’s mother — face intensified responsibility for their shared household, which includes their ailing mother (Ratka Radmanovic). So when a German officer, Captain Muller (Mikko Nousiainen), offers a housekeeping job to Lica (Lucija Serbedzija, daughter of one director, sister of the other), Lenche encourages her without hesitation. “These are hard times,” she tells her sister, all but insisting that the younger woman compromise herself for the sake of the family’s survival.

It’s painful enough that the place Muller is occupying is the home of Zoran’s departed friend and her family, but the captain also expects Lica, who speaks German, to dine with him after she’s finished cooking and scrubbing the floors. By comparison with the Bulgarian collaborators, who move through the town like mobsters, the Nazi is a genteel man of culture — which doesn’t preclude rape from his social arsenal. Lica becomes his reluctant lover, and a pariah among her neighbors. Eventually Zoran, hearing scathing comments about his mother at every turn, asks her to stop working for Muller.

The filmmakers create a well-rounded sense of the community, interweaving humor and wonder with the harrowing realities of war as Zoran interacts with various residents: the physically crippled and emotionally stunted “Wacky” Vava (Dejan Zafirov), the even-tempered baker (Petre Arsovski), the gentle soul (Aksel Mehmet) who raises homing pigeons. Between the aimless ramblings and pointed pranks that he embarks on with other kids, the boy witnesses murders and brutality at close hand, on both sides of the political divide.

As the ravages of deprivation and abuse take their toll, the internecine regional battle infects the home front. There are petty tussles between Zoran and his cousin, echoes of the fraying alliance between their mothers. Whether Zoran’s mother can live down her connection to the German soldier is an open question, and one that the film makes fully felt in its final, wrenching scenes.

Production companies: Partysans, Lijeni Film, Art Films Production, MP Film Production in association with Kino Oko, Film & Music Entertainment, YLE, Macedonian National Television
Cast: David Todosovski, Rade Serbedzija, Mikko Nousiainen, Lucija Serbedzija, Silvija Stojanovska, Nebojsa Glogovac, Ratka Radmanovic, Petar Mircevski, Petre Arsovski, Dejan Lilic, Dejan Zafirov, Aksel Mehmet, Marija Lapadatovic, Kalina Naumovska

Directors: Rade SerbedzijaDanilo Serbedzija
Screenwriters: Dusan Jovanovic, Rade Serbedzija, Danilo Serbedzija
Based on the stage play Oslobodjenje Skoplja by Dusan Jovanovic
Producers: Igor A. Nola, Robert Naskov, Gorjan Tozija, Vladimir Anastasov, Arto Halonen
Executive producer: Aleksandar Popovski
Director of photography: Dejan Dimeski
Production designer: Ivan Bartling
Costume designer: Zeljka Franulovic
Editor: Nicolas Gaster
Composers: Tuomas Kantelinen, Vlatko Stefanovski
Casting: Kirijana A. Nikoloska

Not rated, 110 minutes