Real emotions in drab lives
by Vittoria Scarpa
- An intense feature debut by Albania’s Bujar Alimani, winner of the Jury Special Prize, the Fipresci Prize and the Cineuropa Award at the 2011 Lecce Festival of European Film.
"It’s a step in humanising the prison system. European law imposes it. We must respect it in order to enter the Union,” says a prison guard to Spetim by way of explanation about the new law conceded to prisoners in Albania: a one-hour, monthly conjugal visit. Spetim’s wife is one of those prisoners.
In another room in the same prison, Elsa receives the same information: her husband is behind bars and she’ll be allowed to see him every fifth of the month, the same day and time as Spetim’s visits. Yet neither shows a glimmer of joy. "It’s the law," declares the guard, but for the protagonists it’s more than that – it’s an imposition.
A heartrending melancholy flows through Amnesty [+see also:
interview: Bujar Alimani
film profile], an intense feature debut by Albania’s Bujar Alimani, winner of the Jury Special Prize, the Fipresci Prize and the Cineuropa Award at the 2011 Lecce Festival of European Film. A portrait of an Albania divided between anxiety and progress towards Europe, and the traditions anchoring it to the past, the film takes place in a gray Tirana with dilapidated buildings, where work is scarce.
Elsa (Luli Bitri) is an unemployed mother of two who lives with her bitter and backward father-in-law (Todi Llupi). Spetim (Karafil Shena) works in a paint factory and when he isn’t watching erotic films, he’s battling with a washing machine that refuses to work. They live meagre, depressing, dead-end lives. One day, as they wait their turns in jail, the end up witnessing a wedding for a prisoner who is marrying the beautiful, radiant Maya (Mirela Naska).
Maya’s enthusiasm and passion run counterpoint to Elsa and Spetim’s drab, squalid lives, which are marked each month by their emotionless conjugal visits in sordid cells. The faces of their respective spouses are never shown, nor are their voices heard. They are simply imposed bodies that have become foreign entities.
Elsa and Spetim meet in a bar across the street from the jail, then again on the bus: "Witness," they call each other every time, smiling. Then she goes to Spetim’s house and there plays his dusty piano, as if opening up her heart.
The director works another symbol into the same scene: Spetim’s relationship with the washing machine. It’s always breaking down because of the stuck nylon stocking of woman who no longer exists. Unlike the conjugal visits shown in all their rawness, the lovemaking between Elsa and Spetim is only hinted at through a glass door.
Each sees in the other the possibility of a different life. But an unexpected amnesty, which grants their spouses release, and which makes only Maya happy, will bring their relationship to an end.
Alimani studied painting at the Tirana Academy of Fine Arts, and it shows. Some sequences are characterized by strong contrasts of Caraveggio-esque lights and shadows, which exalt the drama of the action and the details of the bodies. Silence is also predominant: there is little dialogue and no music whatsoever. Only in one scene does Elsa’s father-in-law play the bagpipes, an instrument typical to Pogradec, from which the director hails. It is the legacy of an archaic culture that will ultimately, bloodily impose over those who instead are turned towards the future.
(Translated from Italian)