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SLAMDANCE 2023

Review: Where the Road Leads

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- Nina Ognjanović’s debut feature is a sure-handed and stylish neo-western filmed on a shoestring budget and set in a place where time has ground to a halt

Review: Where the Road Leads
Jana Bjelica in Where the Road Leads

When it comes to the western as a genre, in both its classical and its “neo” incarnations, it is less about the macro location and more about the micro one. A movie does not have to be set in the American West to be a western, but it does have to get the genre tropes right, even if it is set, for instance, in a very rural part of South-Eastern Serbia in an unspecified period between the 1980s and the 2020s. In that regard, the premiere of Where the Road Leads [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
at Slamdance should serve as confirmation that newcomer Nina Ognjanović has mostly done things right with her modestly budgeted, but stunning, graduation work.

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Dawn is breaking, and Jana (Jana Bjelica, glimpsed in Oleg Novković’s The Living Man [+see also:
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) runs up and down dusty paths amidst a hilly landscape. She gets home, overhears a conversation that sounds cryptic, signalling it might turn out to be important, and gets her bag, but she does not change out of her simple, white dress. In another of the village houses, one that serves as an improvised tavern, innkeeper Ruža (Branislava Stefanović) and her grumpy husband (legendary actor Svetozar Cvetković) are having trouble serving the already drunk brothers Petar (Ninoslav Ćulum) and Pavle (Vladimir Maksimović), so they send their pre-teen grandson Mirko (Demijan Kostić, adorable) to get the local law enforcer Đura (Igor Filipović), who has just gone for a shave and to get his latest fill of rumours at the barber’s house. However, he is being served by the barber’s young, insecure son (Pavle Čemerikić, of Stitches [+see also:
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interview: Miroslav Terzić
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]
and The White Fortress [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Igor Drljača
film profile
]
fame).

The thing is, Petar and Pavle are threatening to kill the new guy who arrived the day before, talking the talk, like all of the previous new guys did, and the villagers half-believe their threats. The only one who is genuinely scared about such an outcome is Jana, and for good reason: the man in question (played by Zlatan Vidović, very active on the big and the small screen recently) may very well serve as her ticket out of the despair of spending her whole life in the secluded village. Halfway through, however, the filmmaker surprises the audience with a flashback to the day before in order to explain the title (a new highway is being built in the vicinity), the background of the stranger who came to the village, his connections with it through his great aunt Rajka (Eva Ras) and the nature of the potential conflict, or at least the misunderstanding with the locals.

This kind of time-hopping structure proves to be a clever move, as Ognjanović uses the first half to establish the nature of this place where time appears to be standing still, and its inhabitants, through a number of nicely downplayed design details (kudos to Neva Joksimović on the production design and Martina Malobović on the costumes), and the second half to explain the mystery of the two worlds colliding. By using locations in the real-life remote village of Topli Do and giving a good sense of the local geography (with the help of cinematographer Vladislav Andrejević, who puts the earthy greys, browns and rusty reds to good use), placing a great deal of trust in her actors, infusing proceedings with tension through the string-heavy score by Ana Krstajić, and instructing editor Rastko Ubović to maintain the pace and to keep the running time to the low 80 minutes, Ognjanović manages to tell this timeless story with elegance. The end result is a stunning, stylish and sure-handed debut that gets all of the western and backwoods-noir tropes absolutely right.

Where the Road Leads is a Serbian production by Pointless Films, in co-production with the Belgrade Faculty of Dramatic Arts and Radio-Television of Serbia.

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