Withering (Odumiranje): Cottbus Review

Serbian helmer finds downbeat comedy, tragedy in rural exodus theme.

Producer-actor Branislav Trifunovic stars in Milos Pusic's screen adaptation of stage play that probes rural exodus, generation conflict themes.

A Chekhovian melancholy hangs over this resolutely downbeat comedy of rural manners set in a remote corner of the Serbian provinces. Milos Pusic’s Withering offers few laughs, and such as there are derive largely from the depths of despair felt by its protagonists. On the face of it, commercial prospects would appear dim for this account of one man’s determination to join the rural exodus. But Pusic conjures a bleak poetry from his material and the film’s makers attending the Cottbus festival screening were able to announce the signing earlier in the day of a distribution deal for several European markets including those in Germany, France, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries.

When Janko (Branislav Trifunovic, who also produced) returns after several years in Belgrade to his almost deserted village in the mountains, his widowed mother Milica (Dara Dzokic) is at first overjoyed and then heart-broken when he informs her that he plans to move to Zurich to start a new life there. The first essential step in this venture will be to sell the plot of land that he has inherited, and too bad if his father just happens to be buried there.

Among the other tortured souls who inhabit this godforsaken corner of the Balkans is the farmworker Strahina (Boris Isakovic) whose son Ilija has died in circumstances that are not immediately made clear, whose grieving wife Jovanka (Jasna Duricic) will not speak to him, let alone have sex with him, and whose daughter Stamena (Milica Janevski) is equally alienated and determined on silence.

As Janko’s manoeuvres over his father’s grave develop, a backstory of generational conflict emerges. His father used to beat him mercilessly, “but only when he was drunk,” Milica pleads. And Strahina may have had something to do with the death of his son who, we duly learn, committed suicide. With the cow Ruzica his sole outlet for conversation, Strahina appears a sad, clownish figure who nonetheless clings on to a vestigial dignity. It is he and the equally tragic Milica who have some of the best lines of dialogue: “I drink not to forget but to remember; it’s a bad feeling,” he observes, while Milica warns her son: “You’ve turned into the sort of person you’re running away from.”

The arrival of a (somewhat caricatured) snooty urban couple intent on buying the land serves to underscore how far the terms of trade between town and country have shifted in favor of the former. Janko escapes to a new life. There is no happy ending, but failing that the movie stresses the virtues of endurance. Among other loose ends tied up in an effective closing montage, we find Milica communing with her late husband over his grave moved to a new location. There is even a birth, the traditional signifier of hope and continuity, which comes out of left field.

Adapted by Dusan Spasojevic from his own stage play in a Serbian-Swiss coproduction, Withering is buoyed by a soundtrack of traditional Balkan music, theme-related folk and pop songs which insist that all is not doom and gloom out in the boondocks. Production values are rough-and-ready and the use of color is idiosyncratic, but cinematographer Aleksandar Ramadanovic makes the most of the most enduring symbol of all, the mountains.

Production companies: Hit & Run Production, Secondo Film, Burning Parrot

Cast: Branislav Trifunovic, Boris Isakovic, Dara Dzokic, Jasna Djuricic, Milica Janevski, Emir Hadzihafizbegovic

Director: Milos Pusic

Writer: Dusan Spasojevic

Producer: Branislav Trifunovic

Executive Producer: Snezana Penev

Director of Photography: Aleksandar Ramadanovic

Production designer: Zorana Petrov

Editor: Ivan Knezevic

Music: Desan Kostic Mocart

International sales: AF Media (Berlin)

No rating, 109 minutes.