Father (Otac) – Review

Father Otac Goran BogdanDesperate poverty makes desperate people do desperate things. Srdan Golubovic’s Father makes that clear from it’s shocking opening scenes, wherein a starving, distressed mother pours petrol on herself and her two children as a protest about lack of proper wages for her husband.

And so kicks off a frustrating, shocking and emotional two hour journey into the harsh realities of life in modern day Serbia.

At the heart of the movie is Nikola (Goran Bogdan) who – having lost his job years ago – is struggling to find work as anything other than a day labourer in his tiny Serbian village. Following on from his wife’s traumatic plea for help, he finds his children have been taken into foster care by the Centre for Social Work whilst he and his wife are declared unfit and unable to provide.

Refusing to lose his children, Nikola embarks on a 300km journey – on foot – to Belgrade in order to petition for their return.

It took me a while to realise that this film is, in fact, set in 2020. Despite his best efforts, Nikola’s family home has no electricity; no fridge; no running water; no boiler. These are lives untouched by social media; television; the internet. Compounding this notion of a village lost in time is the self-serving, lecturing Centre for Social Work who look and dress and speak as if they’ve just stepped out of 1950s Russia. It’s a real eye-opener.

Most of the film centres around Nikola’s journey to the Serbian capital. Contrasted to his wife’s public act of desperation, he offers up a more quiet kind of defiance. There, long tracking shots, allows glimpses into life in several tiny villages that populate the road to Belgrade. There are grim, half-finished buildings everywhere. Even the fields look dry and arid; strewn with litter. Abandoned gas station and schools are covered in rust and rot.

The pacing is, at times, a little ropey. There’s only so many times you can watch a man walking down a strip of motorway or sleep in a doorway. However, this slow pace and frustration is perhaps designed to echo Nikola’s experiences with the local administration and echoes how his own life is a million miles away from the glass and steel of Belgrade, where everyone is in suits and heels.

Goran Bogdan (who you may well remember from The Last Panthers, Fargo or Agape) gives a really understated central performance. His guilt about not being able to provide for his family is written all over his face. He is quiet and even-tempered, with everything just simmering under the surface. You do wonder just what it would take to make him raise his voice and smash his fists.

You can see the humiliation and resentment burning inside him whenever he has to deal with the odious Vasiljevic (Boris Isakovic) at the Centre for Social Work. There is a clear political comment here about Nikola’s noble spirit, in spite of his poverty, in comparison to Vasiljevic’s ugly greed.

This won’t be a film for everyone. It really does take it’s time and – to be honest – it’s just grim. It doesn’t have the glossy finish of, say, Alejandro Inarritu’s Biutiful. Nikola’s life just seems to lurch from one rotten situation to another. It’s relentless in just how unfair it is. And, to top it off, there is no neatly packaged fairytale ending. If anything, it just gets worse, with Nikola no further forward than where he started.

Father is a really slow, bleak burn, which may well leave you frustrated. But it seems like it’s supposed to. You should be angry at bureaucrats taking advantage of poor people or children growing up without running water. No one should have to set themselves on fire or walk for days on end in order to receive basic human dignities.

Father is screening at the Glasgow Film Festival until March 2. Click here to get your tickets.

Mary Munoz
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