Friday, January 03, 2020

PSIFF ’20: Zana

It is strange to think widespread belief in fairies (“zanas” in traditional Albanian lore), curses, and witches persists in a modern European. Such seems to be the case in Kosovo, but it is really haunted by post-traumatic stress and the still-raw memories of Serbian war crimes. Lume Kelmendi’s torments are probably more psychological than supernatural, but that most likely means the Albanian Kosovar’s pain is even more acute in Antoneta Kastrati’s Zana, Kosovo’s official international Academy submission, which screens during the 2020 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Ever since their daughter was killed during the Kosovo War, Lume and her husband Ilir have struggled to conceive another child. He mostly accepts the situation with grim resolve, but his mother is so anxious for another grandchild, she is openly exploring the possibilities of arranging a second (concurrent) wife for him. That puts a great deal of pressure on Lume, who dutifully allows her mother-in-law to drag her to specialists, faith healers, and witches.

Technically, Lume is physically healthy, but she is clearly unwell psychologically and emotionally. Yet, her husband, parents, and in-laws seem bizarrely lacking in empathy, even though they fully understand what happened to her and share her loss. Granted, Kastrati is also clearly trying to depict the sexism of traditional rural communities, but it is still hard to reconcile their blithe indifference with the truth as we suspect it, which will be duly confirmed in time.

Indeed, none of the film’s revelations are likely to surprise viewers, but that is hardly the point. Instead, it is all about the corrosive effects of grief and misplaced guilt. As Lume, Adriana Matoshi is quietly devastating. This is a slow-burning, deceptively reserved performance, but it lands like a load of bricks dropped from a crane. It is sharply intelligent contrast to the sort of loud and messy, wailing and flailing we would expect from a shtick-maven like Meryl Streep. It is deeply powerful and uncompromising work.

Frankly, nobody else really holds up to her, except maybe Cun Lacji, who is chillingly fierce as her father in key scenes late in the picture. It is highly doubtful Zana will ever screen in Serbia or the ethnically cleansed districts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but it would not be surprising if its reception was somewhat mixed in its native Kosovo.

This is a tough, harrowing film, but it is well-crafted and strikingly lensed by Sevdije Kastrati. In fact, some of Kastrati sisters’ final images are absolutely overwhelming. It is a worthy and important cinematic statement, but some of the dramatic circumstances will trouble viewers in a distracting way. Recommended for its bracing depiction of the lingering anguish resulting from war crimes, Zana screens tomorrow (1/4), Sunday (1/5), and the following Saturday (1/11), as part of this year’s PSIFF.