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BELGRADE FEST 2022

Review: Darkling

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- Serbian director Dušan Milić's psychological drama-horror set in post-war Kosovo builds a convincing world and tells an engaging story, but lacks a decisive finishing touch

Review: Darkling
Milona Ilov in Darkling

The fourth feature by Serbian director Dušan Milić, Darkling [+see also:
interview: Dušan Milić
film profile
]
, has bowed to home spectators at Belgrade FEST after world-premiering at the Trieste Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award. Although this mix of psychological drama and horror set in post-war Kosovo is well written and handsomely produced, it falls just short of being fully accomplished.

Outside the northern part of Kosovo, there are only a few small Serbian communities left, scattered throughout the territory. Our heroes are a family consisting of grandpa Milutin (Slavko Štimac), his daughter-in-law Vukica (Danica Ćurčić) and granddaughter Milica (Milona Ilov). Milutin's son went missing almost a year ago, and while the handful of other families there are all leaving, they are staying to wait for him.

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The Serbs in this remote area are protected by the KFOR peacekeeping troops, represented by two Italian soldiers (Ivan Zerbinati and Flavio Parenti). They have a warm relationship with the family: Vukica has learned some Italian from a dictionary, and the soldiers can communicate with a few basic Serbian words. As most of the time there is no electricity, the Italians charge Vukica's mobile phone at their base and bring batteries for a transistor radio. Every morning, they take Milica and a handful of other kids in their armoured vehicle to a monastery for elementary-school classes. But there are fewer and fewer children attending every day.

The film opens in the darkness of the family's decrepit house: loud bangs from outside and their cow's agitated mooing persuade Milutin and Vukica to move a heap of furniture that they have barricaded the door with, in order to see what is happening. Milutin finds the calf dead by the barbed-wire fence he has put up, and boot tracks in the mud outside. But the soldiers, whose jurisdiction is limited by miles of red tape, can only take a photo and write up a report. When a local Serbian official visits the family, it becomes clear that even their government has deserted them.

Despite the very real fears of Albanian terror and wolves in the surrounding forests, the film suggests that darker forces might be at work. In several instances, DoP Kiril Prodanov films the protagonists from the forest, in amongst the foliage, in a sort of a circular view, creating the impression that something, possibly not human, is observing them. One night, Milica runs out of the house deep into the woods, and the play of light and shadows, coupled with varied and creative camera positions, menacing music and sound design, intensifies this impression.

The world-building of the film is almost immaculate, with Milić's screenplay gradually setting up the dread and the oppressive atmosphere both in the dark, claustrophobic house and in the surroundings, where all kinds of threats might be lurking. But it is a pity that that filmmakers did not seem able to eventually opt for either drama or horror.

The story is told from Milica's point of view, and Ilov's turn as a child in peril is more than competent, but the script at times pushes it close to over-the-top sentimentality. Ćurčić delivers a nuanced, expertly controlled performance, but the most experienced member of the cast, Yugoslav legend Štimac, seems to play the paranoid grandpa by numbers, rather than really inhabiting the character – another key element that, if present, could have made the film a more accomplished piece of work.

Darkling is a co-production between Serbia's Film Deluxe International, This and That Productions and Firefly Productions, Bulgaria's RFF International, Denmark's Space Rocket Nation, Italy's A_Lab, and Greece's Graal SA. Wide Management is in charge of its international sales.

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