‘Safe Place’ review: Croatia’s first debut feature

About halfway through Safe Place, a movie not really given to soften viewers’ feelings, the meek and honest rendition of a single word – “sorry” – irreparably breaks the heart into a million tiny fragments. It comes from Damir (Goran Markovic), a calm, volatile but childlike man who just attempted suicide. His amazing and protective brother Bruno (Joraj Lerotic) will not hear any such apologies, but this sad “regret” still hangs between them, perhaps standing in the face of many unexplained factors from the past, perhaps covering more devastation in the future. Every little word and gesture counts in the scattered Croatian Lerotić sparse, still, for the first time: any bigger word and gesture could lead to a very lopsided situation.

Usually, one would advise a first-time writer and director not to burden themselves with a leading role on screen in the efforts of beginners, at least if they are not experienced actors. But Lerotić’s rules—graduating into features 12 years after his short “Then I See Tania” hit some festival miles—may be a little different. With “The Safe Place” based squarely on his family’s traumatic history, and the director playing his part so effectively in this autobiographical work, it’s easy to see why one would find some safety in taking as practical an approach as possible to such fragile material. Either way, the adventure paid off: the film is fresh from winning three awards in Locarno, including the award for best feature film, and is now showing up in the main competition in Sarajevo, with a long string of festival reservations sure to come. The interest from discerning distributors should raise the prestige of “Safe Place” well above what is the norm for Croatian cinema.

Not only does Lerotic have great outbursts of feeling to convey his story across the line, but he also tells it with a remarkable formal and economic rigor – evidenced by the illuminated and exquisitely composed foundational shot provided by he and DP Marko Brdar, which calmly takes in the day-to-day events. From a monotonous apartment building in Zagreb, before our eyes are drawn to a man trying to sabotage the internal entry system, his panic can be perceived even in a long, dark shot. It’s Bruno, troubled after an annoying phone call from Damir. After smashing the building’s doors and Damir’s pillow, his fears proved justified, as blood contaminated from his brother’s self-inflicted wounds. Damir was rushed to the hospital; A bewildered Bruno takes on surprisingly unsympathetic questions from the police and medical staff, while all he has is a glut of unresolved causes for his brother.

Keeping the focus directly and intimately on family, Lerotic’s scrawny text draws some dark, comedic blood from the shortcomings and insensitivity of bureaucracy in response to such moments of acute personal crisis—there is a vein of caustic procedural irony that defines this universally resonant story. Firmly in the tradition of filmmaking in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. It was this cruelty from above that led Bruno and his mother (Snjeana Sinovčić Šiškov) to make a hasty and perhaps ill-considered decision to move Damir to the family home in Split, where the patient takes a turn for the worse, exposing himself to further danger.

At this point, however, this natural, quiet exercise thus far has already resulted in one ingenious and confusing tilt of reality. It is a flourishing play that Lerotic and editor Marko Verkowicz executes with deceptive and relentless restraint, a taut between life and death, though the actions soon return to the film’s well-established world, but then puts the two brothers’ intense love affairs on a tattered and uncertain relationship. Foot. Brdar’s elegant and often subtle frame compels us to observe their interactions through open but dark doorways and windows that cut off bits of their shapes and expressions: even when we share a room with them, deep pools of melting shadow can distance us from the whole picture.

The Safe Place offers few details about the directors’ lives, loved ones, or livelihoods outside of this tense current tragedy, but the performances implicitly fill a number of empty spaces. Markovic, who deservedly won Best Actor at the Cineasti del Presente competition in Locarno, is absolutely stunning as the boundlessly wounded Damir, whose overflowing, tense and often quiet dialogue reveals less torment than his sad, distant gaze, his slow taut body language and his air of commitment. He likened the infant to his brother. Bruno and his mother insist Damir showed no signs of depression before a patch of “low spirits” emerged recently, but as played with deep melancholy by Markovic, that hardly seems possible. Safe Place invites its audience to think about how intuitive we are in dealing with the pain of those closest to us, how interested we are in hearing what we want to hear, and how safe we ​​are in making the special places we share.

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