Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 14, 2022 11:03 am 
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Grim nobility

The numbing horror of poverty compounded by despicable bureaucratic corruption and egoistic politicians who care more about their images than their constituents form the topics of Srdan Golubovic's Father (Otac), which won two prizes at the Berlinale. There is no doubt of the beautiful commitment of the lead performance of Bosnian star Goran Bogdan. Bogdan, a busy actor known for TV's "Fargo," a tall man with deep hooded eyes and a long, sad, sallow face, makes a memorable impression here. The question is whether this film's trajectory, which mixes the dreary nobility of Ken Loach with some of the stark, score-free minimalism of Robert Bresson, is a work of art, or merely miserabilism, or is simply too grim to be borne.

Take the opening sequence, the only one where Goran Bogdan is out of the frame. In it his wife drags their young son and daughter before the factory he was laid off from two years ago and, to protest the non-payment of his severance pay, sets fire to herself. This creates the challenge and sets the mood. Observers step in to save her, she is hospitalized and held for psychological evaluation; the children are taken into care. Nikola (Bogdan) seeks to get them back. He is met with Vasiljević (Boris Isaković), the petty tyrant of social services - flanked by two underlings - who will not let him even see the kids, and judges him unfit to have them back.

The centerpiece is a Jobian journey on foot that Nikola undertakes to see the minister in Belgrade. It's a five-day trip, over hill and dale, interrupted when Nikola, who has only a loaf of bread, a plastic bottle of water, and a strip of bacon to sustain him and mostly nowhere quiet and safe to sleep, collapses and is hospitalized. This is another illustration of the exploitive, insensitive bureaucratic world that intervenes between dire poverty and a decent life: a doctor wants to hold him for days of tests, asks for his government health care card, and assures another patient that he's not expected to be comfortable there.

Nikola escapes the hospital, but suffers other trials. When he gets to the ministry, no high official will see him at first, of course, but he holds the petition a friend has drawn up for him and plants himself, refusing to budge until he's seen. This draws media attention. He becomes famous. An ambitious under-minister, doubtless eager for the publicity, meets with him and promises to help, grabbing a selfie at the end of the brief encounter. Back at home, he meets a now angry and more adamant Vasiljević who says he's the ultimate authority.

We have seen Nikola's house, with no water heater and the electricity cut off, which he tried in vain to make acceptable to authorities to get the kids back. Nothing persuades Vasiljević, who evidently runs crooked schemes to profit by foster care arrangements. Eventually though, Nikola's persistence leads to his meeting with his children. The little girl leaps into his arms and hugs and hugs him, but the older boy holds off, angry and suspicious, demanding that Nikola take them home, not believing his promise to do so, but not now.

The ultimate irony comes when Nikola returns home and finds that in his absence neighbors, claiming to think the house abandoned, have pillaged his meager possessions. But he does not give up. I am wondering, though. Should poverty, unemployment, social injustice, and government corruption be the occasion for a heroic display of noble suffering and determination? Miserabilism revels in suffering and its protagonists revel in it too. That is what is happening when a mother sets fire to herself to dramatize her family's mistreatment or her husband goes on a grueling foot journey for the same purpose. What do such displays accomplish and what do they really have to do with the social issues? Is director Golubovic right to make this artistic choice? Maybe. Maybe not. But Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, and the Dardennes have been here before him and moved audiences and gained accolades for their work. Why should Srdan Golubović, who owes debuts to those masters and also to the Romanians, not also do so?

Father/Otac, 120 mins., debuted at the Berlinale Feb. 22, 2020, winning both the Audience award and the Ecumenical Jury award. It has shown since in at least eighteen international festivals. Dekanalog releases the film in select U.S. cinemas from Fri. Apr. 15, 2022, starting at the New Plaza in New York and at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles Apr. 22. An expanded national rollout will follow.

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