Serbia enters Sundance competition
Last night I was lucky enough to attend the world premier of “The Disobedient,” a feature film in the World Dramatic Competition hailing all the way from the eastern European nation of Serbia. Hosted by the famous Egyptian Theater, it was quite the event with reporters from all the big entertainment publications in attendance. It felt like an important moment for the indie film world.
“The Disobedient” is an extremely ambitious first film for Writer / Director Mina Djukic. I walked into the film expecting a tale of childhood lovers reconnecting later in life only to face a test of their devotion or, you know, something along those familiar lines. That’s what the synopsis led me to believe. To Djukic’s credit, you can’t really write this film off like that. It takes its precious, Serbian time to introduce its characters with barely any dialogue and a painfully slow first act.
The film opens when the characters are around five or six but quickly jumps something like 15 years into the future. A young, 20-something year-old Leni (Hana Selimovic) sees her friend Lazar (Mladen Sovilj), who has been studying abroad, for the first time in three years at his dad’s funeral. Expressions of desire are exchanged between the two friends though they don’t speak to one another.
Now, most American audiences would expect the pace to pick up considerably at this point. Instead, we’re subjected to slow sequences of Leni abruptly ending things with a boy we can assume she has been dating but lost interest in, discovering she is pregnant, and going to work at her parents‘ pharmacy. When the characters’ journey — a literal, spur of the moment journey through the sexy Serbian countryside — finally begins, I think we all sighed in relief.
Now, I haven’t even mentioned the narrator yet. Djukic employs an on-screen narrator similar to that of Bob Balaban’s red-hat-wearing character in Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” that, like a careless puppeteer, controls the major turning points of the story by instructing secondary characters to interact with Leni and Lazar. When they escape the pouring rain by crashing a large wedding party — perhaps the funnest and most affective scene in the film — the narrator tells a bridesmaid to go and steal a dancing Lazar away from Leni. Leni temporarily loses faith in his love for her. Later, the narrator points a young wanderer, Dani (Danijel Sike) in the direction of Leni and Lazar’s roadside camp. After revealing that he is an orphan, Dani joins the two on their travels.
Djukic’s picture is beautiful to the eyes and ears. She takes full advantage of the beautiful fields and hills that make up the Slavic countryside and thus the film unfolds on screen very lyrically and with much detail and screen direction. But “The Disobedient” takes its time and thus the audience assumes something big is coming for practically the whole movie. The childish troublemaker duo of Leni and Lazar is fun to watch on screen, but the individual characters are not developed much in the 112 minutes that it takes for their story to be told. When the two friends finally do cross the line between pals and lovers, I was happy and somewhat relieved but not because I felt like I knew the characters very well. The emotional reaction I had to what followed was only because, as the actors talked about during the Q&A, intimacy is universal. We can all relate, and in that way, its nothing new.
This being the first Serbian film I think much of the audience had ever seen, some of the mixed and mostly negative reviews by publications like Variety have to be chalked up to losses in translation. I really, really liked the film because it felt like a slice of life that didn’t feel pressured to rush a resolution. Those resolutions we’re so accustomed to in mainstream entertainment rarely happen in real life, and to be fair, Leni’s symbolic adoption of Dani brought some measure of closure to her character. On the other hand, the reckless, controlling narrator didn’t sit with me well after I left the theater. I don’t think the film needed him.
This is all to say that the chances of this coming-of-age film getting a stateside release are slim. I really enjoyed watching a different take on young love and salute Mina on her refreshing, youthful first feature. Ultimately though, I think the fact that more than half of the audience left before the Q&A might reflect the potential this film has in the United States.