‘A Ballad’ Review: A Formally Restless Bosnian Feminist Drama
After three solemn feature films centering on the ramifications of war – not just in her home country of Bosnia, but also in 2017’s ‘Never Leave Me’, writer-director Aida Begić leaves political conflict behind in her fourth movie. “A Ballad,” however, no less abrasively charges the emotional battlefield of a young woman’s separation from her longtime partner, and the personal, legal, and family skirmishes that plague her struggle for independence. Very loosely based on the 17th century South Slavic ballad “Hasanaginica”, Begić’s ambitious and structured film eagerly updates its moral of pain and female submission to much more modern ideals of feminist resolve and rejection of patriarchy.
Not all of the film’s whirlwind subplots land, nor are all of its social and philosophical avenues of inquiry clearly laid out. But it is the most distinctive and artistically exciting work to date from Begić, who won awards at Cannes for his first two feature films, 2008’s ‘Snow’ and ‘Children of Sarajevo’. in 2012, and is now unveiling a film for the first time at the festival in his hometown of Sarajevo. That’s perhaps appropriate for a work steeped in local culture and lore, though “A Ballad” should travel further along the festival circuit due to its formal and narrative risk-taking. For Begić, the film has been in the works for a long time, having been announced in 2015 before being overtaken by “Never Leave Me”, while the global pandemic subsequently diminished plans for a wider international co-production. The end result, however, makes a virtue of its grounded intimacy.
Not that “A Ballad” feels particularly intimate or approachable in its early stages, as Begić hits the ground running with an overabundance of conflicting narratives and perspectives, alternated by quick, brutal cuts and a choppy, choppy shooting style. held by hand. Gradually, the chaos clears up to center the character of Meri (“The Children of Sarajevo” leads Marija Pikić), a mother and housewife in her early thirties, who recently separated from her overbearing partner Hasan (Milan Tocinovski) to return with his authoritarian mother Zafira (Jasna Žalica). Above all, she could not take her young daughter Mila (Gaia Tanovic) with her; an ugly custody battle looms, with the system looking stacked against the jobless and defiant Meri.
The prying middle-aged lawyer and family friend Samir (Slaven Vidak) offers to take his case, but it soon becomes clear that he doesn’t have his client’s best interests at heart: instead, he’s trying to forced to marry him for safety, and Zafira, herself a longtime single mother, approves of the idea only too much. Hoping that all of this will somehow go away, Meri deals with other distractions, rejecting Samir’s attempts to get her a steady factory job and, on a whim, continuing instead. acting auditions. This more evasive plan is encouraged by a chance meeting with an old-school friend, amusing hairdresser Adela (Lana Stanišić) – who, among other things, introduces Meri to the cathartic joys of shooting a gun just for fun.
The reason Adela always carries a gun is one of the few overly complicated elements in Begić’s cluttered and hectic storyline. As for an entire, aimless subplot devoted to the criminal affairs of Meri’s wasteful younger brother, Kemo (Enes Kozličić), it’s a little too easy to imagine a satisfying cut of this long, busy film that does without it entirely. — and that’s before “A Ballad” brazenly pulls off a Brechtian reality-reversal that places Meri’s fate in a larger context of Bosnian femininity and traditional heroine models. The tragic protagonist of “Hasanaginica” dies of misfortune after having been widowed, married and separated from her children; Meri, or at least “Meri”, will not succumb so easily to the ingrained misogyny of society.
This fun and antique narration is complemented by a wild raffle of the filmmaking technique of Begić, a filmmaker generally inclined towards poise and naturalism. Here, anything goes, as Erol Zubčević’s grainy digital lens embraces seasick motion and off-axis compositions – sometimes even spinning 180 degrees in its quest to see things from a different angle. Brash reflections and artificial rear projection abound, the latter especially when Meri imagines her life as a more glamorous movie of passion and freedom and leather-clad bad boys: the one she’s in, at least, isn’t lacking in rebellion. breaking the rules.
Everything is anchored by performances as earthy and authentic as cinema is fickle and experimental. Always, it seems, a small push away from triggering the constant scream within her, Pikić makes Meri’s irrational pivots entirely and sympathetically understandable, while Žalica is utterly remarkable as her mother, not just a nightmare intrusive, but a woman projecting a life of neglect and loneliness onto the children she is determined never to leave for a minute. For all its manic and/or poetic interludes, “A Ballad’s” best scenes are the simplest: the domestic clashes and peace talks clearly seen in Zafira’s cramped, dark apartment, culminating in a table conference. such hysterical awkwardness that Meri can’t stop laughing, if only to keep from crying. Always oscillating between styles, stories, aesthetics and moods, Begić knows the feeling.