Safe Place (Sígurno Mjesto) – Review

Safe Place Depictions of mental health on screen can so often feel like nothing more than mere tropes; a plot device to give the “hero” the chance to demonstrate their power. It’s very rare that you see a writer or director make bold choices for the sole purpose of raising awareness. For those going through it themselves or for those who find themselves as bystanders, the invisible prison of one’s own mind is anything but cinematic.

Writer-director Juraj Lerotic makes his feature-length debut with Safe Place (Sígurno Mjesto), which is an autobiographical account of his own brother’s rapid mental health decline. This is by no means an easy watch, it is extremely harrowing and frustrating at times, but it is surely essential viewing.

The film opens with Bruno (Lerotic) frantically trying to kick in the front door of his brother’s Zagreb apartment. He believes that Damir (Goran Markovic) sounded concerning on the phone, and he is worried he has done something fatal. Sure enough, Bruno manages to break in, only to find that Damir has slit his right arm open and stabbed himself in the neck. It’s a hectic, panicked opening few moments as Damir drifts in and out of consciousness.

But Safe Place is not about the hyperbole of scenes like these. Instead, it offers scathing commentary on the systems that fail to support and the people who are only too willing to judge and mock. There is a distinct lack of concern (and resources) available to Damir. The police treat him like a toddler throwing a tantrum and the hospital staff dispassionately shuffle him from room to room. No psychologist can see him until the next day. The amount of paperwork and bored employees Bruno and his mother encounter whilst trying to do all they can for Damir is sadly unsurprisingly yet still palpably frustrating. “If he talked to us like that, how is going to talk to Damir?” his mother (played by Snjezana Sinovcic) sighs, after being scoffed at by a doctor.

Lerotic employs this incredibly washed out colour palette throughout. There are none of the azure blue seas and red tile roofs that you might think of when you imagine Croatia. Instead, we get sterile blues, tired greys and faded greens. Everything – and everyone – seems sparse; worn out. There is also no score and no non-diegetic sound. All we hear is hurried footsteps down hospital corridors or, worse, prolonged periods of silence. Life continues, quietly, around this very personal agony.

Safe Place The framing of the film is interesting, too. Characters are often staged at either side of the screen, perhaps leaning against a wall or door, like a set of parenthesis; additional thoughts unsaid. Damir, too, is often only seen from behind a glass wall or hospital window. A clear representation of his literal and mental confinement or, perhaps, a nod to the fact that what is going on in his mind is impenetrable to those who love him and want to help. The film’s title also floats an ironic notion of safety when your own mind is so helplessly inescapable.

Lerotic and Markovic are outstanding leads. Since Lerotic is retelling his experiences with his own brother, you can’t help but wonder if this cinematic exploration provides some form of catharsis for him. Bruno’s desire to help and to understand his brother is so authentic in its desperation. As he dips his head towards Damir or gently strokes his arm, you can tell he is savouring every touch. Markovic perfectly captures Damir in all his confusion, fear and vulnerability. He looks so small in his striped hospital pyjamas, whispering, “I’m sorry. I gave in.” His panicked breathing, the clear episodes of disassociation and the tears constantly brimming at the edge of his eyes draw you into his story; his struggle. Even in the “home video” footage at the end, Markovic’s posture and facial expression mark Damir as a man who is very lost. These are genuinely two of the best performances you will have seen.

Safe Place (Sígurno Mjesto) is utterly devastating, brutally honest and entirely brilliant. Its bruising intensity may well render it a distressing watch, but Lerotic has crafted a piece of work so intimate, so beautiful, that it deserves to be seen.

Safe Place (Sígurno Mjesto) has its UK premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival. Get your tickets here.

Mary Munoz
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