Review: Phantom Youth
- VENICE 2023: Luàna Bajrami crafts a decent portrayal of Kosovar youth in the mid-2000s, but the narrative gains depth and ups the intrigue only during the second half of the picture
French-Kosovar actress Luàna Bajrami (recently seen in the Tallinn-winning drama The Land Within [+see also:
interview: Fisnik Maxville
film profile], and soon to be seen in the French comedy A Difficult Year [+see also:
film profile]) is back behind the camera with her sophomore feature, titled Phantom Youth [+see also:
film profile] and world-premiered in the Orizzonti Extra section of this year’s Venice Film Festival.
The story, penned by the helmer herself, takes place in Kosovo in 2007 and kicks off in a remote village in the countryside. We realise that two twenty-something cousins, Zoé and Volta (Elsa Mala and Albina Krasniqi), are tired of their boring lives and see no prospects in remaining stuck in the village, other than being married off to someone chosen by their families, giving up on their ambitions and complying with the demands of their future husbands. Thus, they decide to steal the rusty heap of a family car, drive to Pristina to enrol in the local university and set sail towards a freer, more pleasant existence.
However, things go wrong from the very beginning. They cannot study English as they had hoped to, and end up reluctantly joining the faculty of Economics. In the background, the country on the eve of independence is going through heavy social and political unrest, and the university is not unaffected by this chaotic state of things. Professors don’t show up in the lecture halls, education is severely underfunded and unemployment affects even young graduates.
Bajrami manages to paint a decent portrait of Kosovo’s youth in turmoil with limited production resources. Specifically, the movie unfolds within a few locations, and the two cousins will be accompanied along the way by some supporting characters that will help them discover love and independence, but at the same time will embody the different reactions to a system that crushes their ambitions and ignores their concerns. Their presence is functional, highlighting the progressive emotional distancing between Zoé and Volta. Free to live in a vibrant, urban environment, their different personalities and desires emerge. In this sense, viewers may get a strong feeling for the coming-of-age component present in the film. Their distancing, in a way, resembles the process that many of us go through at an earlier stage in our lives when, for example, a childhood friend suddenly develops totally different interests and changes their vision of the world. By the end of puberty, you realise that you don’t speak the same language any more.
That being said, Bajrami’s sophomore feature is a much more mature work when compared to her debut, The Hill Where Lionesses Roar [+see also:
interview: Luana Bajrami
film profile] (2020). Here, the writing feels more genuine and less childish, and the narrative takes a clearer direction. The main plot point, which makes this picture more profound than one would expect at the beginning (veering towards drama, and abandoning the undertones of the coming-of-age and romance genres), takes place unexpectedly, serving as a brutal wake-up call to face reality. It does perhaps come a bit too late, but it’s still an interesting turning point that allows the characters to think through their life choices and decide what their future will look like.
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