War and a hard kind of peace
If you viewed Juanita Wilson’s impressive debut feature with no prior knowledge, you would, no doubt, be surprised to learn that it is an Irish co-production. A grim, sober tale of the Bosnian war, As If I Am Not There is supremely confident in its grasp of place and its feel for a wretched episode in recent European history. Yet the film is, indeed, directed by an Irishwoman, photographed by a domestic cinematographer and part-financed by the Irish Film Board.
Natasha Petrovic plays Samira, a
young woman from Sarajevo who, as hostilities ferment during the early 1990s, finds herself teaching in a rural village. A gang of armed thugs arrive and, after shooting all the men, imprison the women in a shabby overcrowded room.
Samira’s pleas that she is an outsider fall upon hostile, uninterested ears. Before long, an awful ritual of repeated rape begins.
Adapted from a book by Slavenka Drakulic, the film – short on plot, shorter still on dialogue – ventures an analysis of how such pressure acts upon the women. Intense, worried self-absorption, rather than panic, governs the captives. Eager to retain her dignity and resist dehumanisation, Samira continues to apply make-up and do her best with what clothing remains. Later, she begins an uneasy relationship with one of the captors.
Wisely skipping past the intricacies of Balkan politics, the film develops into a disconcerting, spooky character study. Featuring sumptuous, glacial photography by Tim Fleming, As If I Am Not There is faultless in its accumulation of mood.
There are, however, some problems with the rape sequence. (How could there not be?) Wilson has been careful to avoid gratuitous nudity, and her depiction of the soldiers as unexcited, rutting automatons rings true. The greater focus is, quite understandably, upon Samira’s deadened face (hence the film’s title). But the hazy perfection of the images and the scene’s very tastefulness are in danger of aestheticising the assault. It is, perhaps, all just a little too elegantly arranged.
For all that, As If I Am Not There remains a notably powerful debut that packs a considerable emotional punch. It’s the kind of film that gives international co-productions a good name. THE TITLE has both metaphorical and literal meanings. Archipelago, the latest film from Joanna Hogg, director of the abrasive Unrelated, is, indeed, set in the Scilly Islands. But Hogg is also alerting us to the ways in which the characters, despite their close family ties, remain emotionally isolated from one another. We are together, but we are alone.
Enthusiasts for Unrelated will have some idea what to expect. As in that film, the story hangs around a group of middle-class people enduring a perfectly ghastly holiday. Patricia (Kate Fahy), the oppressed mater familias, desperately attempts to engineer a degree of warmth and good will. Cynthia (Lydia Leonard), her inexplicably neurotic daughter, picks fights with any human being unfortunate enough to enter her gaze. Edward (Tom Hiddleston), Patricia’s decent but psychologically woolly son, prepares for a trip to Africa working with Aids patients. Meanwhile, on the mainland, an unloved and unseen dad keeps his distance. One can hardly blame him.
Whereas Unrelated was something of a slow-burner, Archipelago barely reaches even damp ignition. This is not meant as criticism. The sense of brooding, barely explained tension seems all the more suffocating for never quite bursting above ground. The most furious arguments occur on the telephone – only one voice audible – or, vaguely comprehensible, on the other side of thick English westcountry walls.
Referencing the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi, Hogg ramps up the dread by shooting interiors in a sepulchral darkness that turns blazing window views into animated picture postcards. The urge to escape the house and savour the greenery is frequently overpowering.
For all Hogg’s skill, however, the impenetrability of her characters is ultimately somewhat frustrating. At home to Bergmanesque ambiguity, she surely would welcome the fact that we don’t know quite what to make of the painter, a friend of Patricia’s, who occasionally pops up to deliver florid, pretentious meditations on life, the universe and everything. Still, Hogg can’t have meant him to come across as such an unmitigated poltroon.
It is certainly an achievement to create this degree of psychological fug. We could, however, cope with a little more illumination from Hogg’s next opus.
Dignified: Natasha Petrovic