Review of “Safe Place”: a heartbreaking debut feature film from Croatia

About halfway through “Safe Place,” a film already unused to calming viewers’ emotions, the sweet and honest delivery of a single word — “Sorry” — is irreparably heartbreaking. into a million little shards. He comes from Damir (Goran Marković), a calm, bearish but childish-eyed man who has just attempted suicide. His stunned and protective brother Bruno (Juraj Lerotić) won’t hear of such an apology, but that plaintive “sorry” still hovers between them, perhaps replacing several unexplained factors from the past, possibly covering up more devastation to come. . Every little word and every gesture counts for a lot in the sparse, motionless and tender-like debut feature by Croatian multi-hyphen Lerotić: any bigger one could unbalance an extremely delicate situation.

Ordinarily, a first-time writer-director would be advised not to take on more of a leading on-screen role in their freshman endeavor, especially if they are not themselves a seasoned actor. But Lerotić’s rules — moving on to feature films 12 years after his short “Then I See Tanja” racked up festival miles — might be a little different. With “Safe Place” drawing directly from his own painful family history, and the director playing himself effectively in this autobiographical work, it’s easy to see why one might find some safety in taking as practical an approach as possible to a such a fragile material. . Either way, the gamble paid off: after scooping three awards at Locarno, including Best First Feature, the film is now appearing in the main competition at Sarajevo, with a long trail of new bookings from upcoming festivals. Interest from knowledgeable distributors is also expected to raise the profile of “Safe Place” well above what is standard for Croatian cinema.

Not content with merely abundant surges of sentiment to carry his story across the line, Lerotić also tells it with remarkable formal rigor and economy – as evidenced by his informed and composed establishment plan with DP Marko Brdar, which takes the daily comings and goings calmly. of a drab building in Zagreb, before our gaze was caught by a man attempting to bypass the intercom entry system, his panic noticeable even in dark shots. It’s Bruno, agitated after an alarming phone call from Damir. After breaking down the doors of the building and Damir’s house, his fears turn out to be justified, as blood from his brother’s self-inflicted wounds smears the walls. Damir is quickly hospitalized; a bewildered Bruno is tasked with answering surprisingly unsympathetic questions from police and medical personnel, while he has only an overabundance of unresolved whys for his brother.

While keeping the focus squarely and intimately on family, Lerotić’s lean screenplay draws some dark, comedic blood from the bureaucracy’s inefficiencies and insensitivities in response to such moments of acute personal crisis – there’s a vein of biting procedural satire that defines this otherwise universally resonant story firmly rooted in the tradition of Balkan and Eastern European cinema. It is this insensitivity from above that drives Bruno and his mother (Snježana Sinovčić Šiškov) to make the hasty and perhaps ill-considered decision to move Damir to the family home in Split, where the patient worsens, putting himself further in danger.

At this point, however, this hitherto serene naturalistic exercise has already managed a deft, disorienting tilt of reality. It’s a theatrical feat that Lerotić and editor Marko Ferković execute with deceptively unbroken restraint, and a leap between life and death that, though the proceedings quickly return to the established world of film, subsequently places the relationship strained love of the brothers on a fractured, uncertain footing. Brdar’s elegant and precise framing frequently forces us to observe their interactions through open but obscuring doors and windows that cut out shards of their figures and expressions: even when we share the room with them, deep pools of melting shadows can lead us away from the full picture. .

“Safe Place” offers few details about the directors’ lives, loves, or livelihoods outside of this immediate tragedy in the present, but the performances tacitly fill in a number of empty spaces. Marković, who deservedly won Best Actor at Locarno’s Cineasti del Presente competition, is quite stunning in the role of infinitely wounded Damir, whose stripped, tense and often whispery dialogue reveals less his torment than his sad gaze. and distant, his body language slow and tense. and his air of almost childish obligation to his brother. Bruno and his mother insist that Damir showed no signs of depression before a recent period of ‘low spirits’, but as played with such deep sadness by Marković, that hardly seems possible. “Safe Place” invites its audience to consider how intuitive we are to the pain of those we hold closest, how attentively we listen beyond what we like to hear, how much we actually protect the private places we share.

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