'On the Other Side' ('S one strane'): Film Review

Courtesy of Interfilm
A small but haunting snapshot of post-war guilt.

Croatia’s official Oscar submission is an enigmatic chamber drama about the lingering psychological scars of a family torn apart by war two decades before.

A melancholy fog of family and national trauma hangs over On the Other Side, recently nominated by Croatia as its official Oscar entry in the best foreign-language film race. Returning to the themes of his 2003 ensemble drama Here, writer-director Zrinko Ogresta's quietly gripping character study unravels the painful and sometimes bizarre psychological aftershocks of war. After picking up multiple prizes on the European festival circuit, specialist theatrical play is a distinct possibility, especially if the Academy takes a keen interest.

Carrying a heavy burden of long-buried shame, Vesna (Ksenija Marinkovic) is a middle-aged nurse living in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. One day, out of nowhere, she receives an unwelcome phone call from the husband she has not seen for 20 years. Zarko (the film’s co-producer Lazar Ristovski) joined the Serbian side during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, taking part in notorious massacres that led to him being tried and jailed in The Hague. Now free again, he is seeking forgiveness from his family, and even seemingly hopes to rekindle his ruined romance with Vesna.

Vesna is initially wary of Zarko's reconciliation attempts, and understandably so. His wartime actions brought tragic consequences for her, including the suicide of their eldest son. Their two surviving grown-up children, hot-tempered womanizer Vladimir (Robert Budak) and jobless neurotic Jadranka (Tihana Lazovic), have both been scarred by their father in different ways. Both refuse his offers of a reunion point blank. But Vesna is torn, gradually warming to Zarko in a series of tender late-night conversations — two lonely souls in the autumn of their lives, bound together by a bitter shared history.

Or so it appears. In the final act, Ogresta and his co-writer Mate Matisic, who also provides the film's plaintively spare score, pull a narrative swerve which shifts On the Other Side from familiar Balkan war post-mortem to a more psychologically complex parable about love and grief, cruelty and forgiveness. The plot’s meticulously lean construction, with each scene contained in a single shot, and tiny character details trickling out over the course of leisurely phone calls, help ensure that this shock twist feels plausible rather than gratuitous.

Marinkovic packs a forceful emotional punch despite a largely internalized performance, exuding the world-weary air of a woman who has been cheated but not quite defeated by life. Ogresta and his cinematographer Branko Linta shoot her through curtains, blinds and windows, repeatedly emphasizing the character's sense of separation and dislocation. Precise and concise, On the Other Side puts an intriguing new slant on the conventions of post-war Balkan cinema. It ends on a poetic visual flourish, leaving unresolved and possibly insoluble questions hanging in the air like perfume.

Production companies: Interfilm, Zilion Film
Cast: Ksenija Marinkovic, Lazar Ristovski, Tihana Lazovic, Robert Budak, Toni Sestan, Vinko Kraljevic, Alen Liveric
Director: Zrinko Ogresta
Screenwriters: Mate Matisic, Zrinko Ogresta
Producer: Ivan Maloca
Director of photography: Branko Linta
Editor: Tomislav Pavlic
Music: Mate Matisic
Sales: Cercamon, Dubai

Not rated, 85 minutes