Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Panorama Europe’15: Bota

Juli Toma’s provincial town is desperately depressed, even by Albania’s standards. Of course, she is not really from there. She and her family were interned there during the Communist era and, one way or another, they have been stuck there ever since. The past is like a millstone holding down the present in Iris Elezi & Thomas Logoreci’s Bota (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Panorama Europe, at the Museum of the Moving Image.

Toma is a waitress at Bota (meaning the world), her cousin Beni’s coffee shop that draws a decent clientele, considering it is literally in the middle of nowhere. That is exactly why the old regime deposited its so-called “state enemies” there. Beni is an operator who has plenty of dodgy dealings with underworld types, but Toma is more-or-less resigned to a futureless future. At least, she will make no plans while caring for Noje, her beloved grandmother, who is increasingly succumbing to the ravages of age.

We soon learn Toma was done wrong by both the Communists and Beni. Her supposed best friend Nora knows it full well, but she keeps quiet hoping Beni, her illicit lover, will leave his unseen wife for her. Eventually, the truth will out, to an extent, but at a great cost for the Bota trio.

Frankly, Bota is so intrinsically bound up in the lingering corrosiveness of the Communist Party and the successive government’s problematic response, Elezi & Logoreci hardly bother to address politics directly. After all, the results are as plain as day. Instead, they focus like a laser-beam on Toma.

Fortunately, lead actress Flonja Kodheli survives and thrives under their potentially withering gaze. With quiet but forceful understatement, she personifies everyday resiliency. Artur Gorishti and Fioralba Kryemadhi are both fine and good as Beni and Nora, but we have seen their like before. However, there is something about how Kodheli’s Toma expresses both naivety and world-weariness that is quite moving.

As inviting and lived-in as the Bota café looks (with considerable credit due to the detailed work of art director Shpetim Baca), Bota the film hardly serves as a tourism commercial for Albania. In a way, it is like the dark flip side of the Central Perk coffee house in Friends. Although there are a few references that will be lost on non-Albanians (for instance, The General of the Dead Army, a celebrated Ismail Kadare novel about an Italian officer commissioned to locate war remains), the larger truths are easy to grasp. Well worth seeing for its discreet tragedy and the power of Kodheli’s work, Bota screens this Sunday (5/31) as part of Panorama Europe, at MoMI in Astoria, Queens.