Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This film is the official submission from Kosovo to the 91st Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. It is the fifth submission ever from that country. This is mainly because Kosovo didn’t become a sovereign country until ten years ago and has only started submitting films to the Oscars since 2014. Prior to Kosovo establishing its independence as a sovereign country, it fought a pretty deadly and brutal war with Serbia, from which Kosovo is still recovering. In fact, this film, directed and co-written by female filmmaker, Blerta Zeqiri, is very much about post-war Kosovo and how people there are literally picking up the pieces and trying to get back some semblance of their lives. The opening to this film is families waiting to hear about missing persons lost in the Kosovo War whose bodies haven’t been recovered or identified nearly 20 years after the conflict has ended.
Zeqiri stages that scene outside as we see people waiting in the bitter cold, as a huge truck brings back pieces of the dead, pieces of the past and of loved ones that they can never have back. She makes this scene almost a metaphor for what happens to her main character, a man named Bekim Gashi, played by Alban Ukaj. Bekim is about to get married. He’s engaged to a woman named Anita, played by Adriana Matoshi. They live in Pristina, the capital city of Kosovo. Anita is on edge because her parents are among those who have been missing since the war. Yet, she’s soldiering on with the wedding plans as the date is almost upon them, but while Anita waits for pieces of her past to show up, a piece of Bekim’s past has already arrived.
Genc Salihu co-stars as Nol, a musician who’s from Kosovo but who has lived in France for the past couple of years. Nol is a singer who has come back to Kosovo to attend the wedding. He’s revealed to be a close friend to Bekim with whom he’s lost contact but with whom he hopes to reconnect. In fact, Nol used to live with Bekim. When Nol was a student in college, Bekim’s family took in Nol as a lodger. When the war broke out, Bekim and his family went into hiding and Nol joined them. When Nol and Bekim meet all this time later, they seem to get along great, but Anita becomes suspicious that something happened in their past that they’re not telling her.
Anita can tell that something is bothering Nol specifically. At first, Nol tells her that he broke up with his girlfriend and that’s what’s bothering him. As a result, Anita can also tell that Bekim is starting to act different now that Nol is around and as the wedding creeps closer. Things don’t become clear until a scene that occurs at Bekim’s job. Bekim runs a bar that hosts events. One day, a gay rights group wants to hold an event there and it doesn’t take that long for Bekim to shoot them down. Later, Nol is attacked and it’s not said why but it doesn’t seem like an ethnic issue or racism. It doesn’t take much to jump to the conclusion that it was a gay bashing.
Thankfully, Zeqiri chooses not to show that kind of homophobia on screen, even though this film reveals itself to be against that kind of homophobia as well as the internalized version that’s akin to what was seen in Brokeback Mountain (2005). The two guys from the gay group who ask Bekim for a venue are all the representation of the LGBT community seen in this film, which is understandable given the country’s position. Kosovo is in southern Europe, an area that includes a lot of homophobic countries that have been slow, if still on advancing gay rights, so much so that it’s still dangerous to be openly gay.
Kosovo has made certain forward steps like having its first-ever gay pride parade back in May 2016. Pride marches in Serbia date back to 2001 but were always met with police resistance. The first pride march in the United States happened in 1969, so basically Kosovo is 30 years behind where America is on gay rights and there’s still a lot to complain about here. Zeqiri’s film gives us an impression of that gap, as well as the pressures and frustrations that gay Kosovo men experience in that gap.
One idea that Zeqiri’s film tosses out that I wish more exploration had been done is the sense of threat from two directions. For gay Kosovo men, especially during the time of the war, fears were abound that they could be hurt by Serbians who wished them harm for not being Serbian and from Albanians who wished them harm for not being straight. That double threat is mentioned here but not really deeply explored. Presumably, Albanians would oppose homosexuality for religious reasons, but, despite the film centering around a wedding, there doesn’t appear to be much religious aspects in this film. The wedding ceremony feels very secular. I’m not even sure what the faiths are of anyone really.
The religiosity of it all perhaps doesn’t matter as marriage has come to represent a certain thing in the culture with religious ties or undertones. It’s such a weighted institution, steeped with so many traditions connected to religion, that it becomes almost an obligation than a choice. Instead of a celebration of love, it’s more of a trap. It’s at once the cornerstone for society and a corner into which certain people are backed.
While it’s not as tragic an ending as Brokeback Mountain, this film does end on a bittersweet moment and on a rather heartbreaking sentiment that’s akin to how other films from foreign countries that have dealt with this kind of subject matter have ended. This movie goes the way of Free Fall from Germany and the recent Mario from Switzerland. However, there’s a moment of hope in the middle of the film that perhaps carries through. It’s when Bekim and Nol sing the Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong version of “You Can’t Take That Away From Me.” The song speaks of a love that might be physically separated but still persists in the mind and heart of those involved. Beyond this film, hopefully Zeqiri’s message is that that kind of love will continue to persist and next time will be held physically and not just mentally.
Not Rated but contains sexual situations, nudity and violence.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 37 mins.
In select theaters and available on VOD on December 7.