There are two kinds of fiction films from Eastern Europe, heavily relied on standard tropes, that are being deemed desired by big festivals. Basically, either we get a serious-as-death social realist drama about the perills of communism, capitalism, transition or war and its effect on Average Joe / Plain Jane and their family, or we get pretty much the same context, but seen throught the filter of irony, pitch-black and absurdist comedy. The question is: “Why should not we have both versions?” And with a dash of surrealism, too. Bojan Vuletić’s sophmore feature Requiem for Mrs J, which premiered in Berlinale’s Panorama Special, is something new, smart and emotionaly charged.
Our title heroine, Jelena (played with great devotion by iconic Serbian actress Mirjana Karanović), lives the daily life of depression. Her daily routine is mundane and empty, her flat in drab residential blocks of New Belgrade suburb is messy. She lives with her elderly mother-in-law (a wonderful, for the most of the time silent performance by the legend of Serbian cinema and theatre Mira Banjac) and her two daughters, grade-school age foul-mouth Koviljka (newcomer Danica Nedeljković) and twenty-something over-worked Ana (Jovana Gavrilović). Ana’s boyfriend Milanče (Vučić Perović) might not live there, but he is never too far away, especially when there is work that needs to be done.
Jelena was widowed almost a year ago and has no real reason to live. So she wants to make a statement with killing herself on her husband’s death anniversary. But before that, she needs to wrap up some ordinary things: to get her name carved next to her husband’s on their gravestone, to try to take out her life insurance money and to validate her health insurance (there is a reason for that, don’t worry), for which she needs some kind of paper from the company she worked for until recently. And since we are in Serbia, that kind of bureaucratic nonsense can get very tricky, absurd and even crazy.
Aside of actors, the strongest feature of Vuletić’s film is cinematography by Jelena Stanković. The pallette consisting mainly of muddy brownish-gray colours may be a bit expected in this kind of film, but the real power is in static master shots, beautifully composed and perfectly simmetrical. When the camera finally gets to move, usually in our heroine’s nighmarish daydreams, it speaks volumes, being at the same time poetic and making a strong statement.
Still, Requiem for Mrs J is an interesting piece of cinema, but not a perfect one. The first change of tone, from kitchen-sink drama to Kafka-esque style absurdist tragi-comedy was done perfectly, but Vuletić doesn’t want to end on that note. So he shifts the tone again in the final act, which leads to the ending that doesn’t quite work, but still has its charm in some details. Additional problem is Vuletić’s writing with occasional long lines of text, that is all fine and dandy when they are delivered by experienced actors like Boris Isaković and Srđan “Žika” Todorović who both have their small supporting parts, but they prove to be a problem for Jovana Gavrilović who over-acts the hell of the scene that should be the emotional center of the film.
Nevertheless, Requiem for Mrs J is a good film, and quite effective parable on everyday life in Serbia painted by poverty, disillusion and overwhelming bureaucracy. Even suicide does not seem like an easy way out. It might not even be possible.