Film Review: 'Zana'

Zana - Publicity Still - H 2019

Kosovo's official Oscar submission is a somber family drama with psychological horror overtones.

Since declaring its disputed independence in 2008, Kosovo has become one of the youngest new Oscar contenders in the Best International Feature Film race. Making the switch from documentary to fiction for her first dramatic feature, Los Angeles-based Kosovar director Antoneta Kastrati draws on her own tragic family history for Zana, her Balkan homeland's latest submission to the Academy Awards. Although it ultimately did not make the shortlist, this somber meditation on lingering wartime trauma is still a classy psychological drama with solid film festival appeal. World premiered at TIFF in September, it makes its U.S. debut at Palm Springs next week.

Zana takes place in a sleepy rural corner of western Kosovo 10 years after the Balkan wars have ended, but the scars of conflict still shape the psychic landscape. Lume (Adriana Matoshi) shares a modest farmhouse with husband Ilir (Astrit Kabashi) and mother-in-law Remzije (Fatmire Sahiti). Despite suffering post-traumatic stress from losing her young daughter in the war, Lume is under constant pressure to get pregnant again. As an increasingly desperate Ilir accompanies his wife to assorted medical specialists and shrinks, holy men and exorcists, Remzije callously lobbies to replace her with a younger, more fertile new partner.

Kastrati presents contemporary Kosovar society as suspended in limbo between science and superstition, where smartphones and YouTube videos co-exist with archaic beliefs in witches and demons, fortune tellers and faith healers. Indeed, the title Zana refers to the folkloric fairy-like maidens traditionally said to haunt villages in Kosovo and northern Albania.

In an inspired touch, Kastrati and her cinematographer sister Sevdije borrow the visual grammar of horror cinema to illuminate Lume's fractured mental state. She is is visited nightly by creepy apparitions of her dead daughter and other ghostly hallucinations. A scratchy VHS tape depicting the exhumation of wartime casualties has some of the uncanny dread of J-horror films like the Ring series. Elsewhere there are echoes of child-themed supernatural classics including Rosemary's Baby and Don't Look Now. Although most of these feverish visions are only happening inside Lume's head, Kastrati presents them as factual because they are still vividly real to her.

Zana is explicitly a film about war and its aftershocks, but also implicitly about the inner wounds of patriarchy and misogyny. Even in her most despairing depths, Lume is rejected by family on all sides, demeaned by her husband and harshly judged by her peers, her social standing reduced to her bovine duty as a baby-breeding machine. But Kastrati keeps this critique more subtle than polemical, never placing the blame with mono-dimensional villains. Ilir, for example, evidently has tender and protective feelings for his wife despite their unbalanced gender roles.

An appealing sensory experience, Zana is full of handsome vistas of sun-dappled meadows, misty rivers and wintry snowscapes. But as drama, the plot is a little disjointed and repetitive, leaning too heavily on Lume's unrelenting victimhood rather than mapping her emotional journey. Matoshi's impressively internalized performance conveys a lot with very little, her impassive features telegraphing submerged grief with scant trace of melodrama. On some level, Lume is clearly intended to be emblematic of an entire generation of Kosovar women still scarred by wartime trauma. In a quietly devastating payoff, Kastrati ends with a dedication to her mother Ajshe and sister Luljeta, both killed in the conflict 20 years ago.

Production companies: Crossing Bridges Films, On Film Production, Alief
Cast: Adriana Matoshi, Astrit Kabashi, Fatmire Sahiti, Mensur Safqiu, Irena Cahani, Vedat Bajrami
Director: Antoneta Kastrati
Screenwriters: Antoneta Kastrati, Casey Cooper Johnson
Producer: Casey Cooper Johnson
Cinematographer: Sevdije Kastrati
Editors: Antoneta Kastrati, Brett W. Bachmann, Michal Reich
Music: Dritero Nikqi
Sales company: Alief
92 minutes