Two young couples from the strife-torn Balkans want to emigrate to Western Europe in Goran Paskaljevic's resonant Honeymoons, touted as the first co-production between Albania and Serbia. While remaining lively and topical, Paskaljevic imbues his parallel tales with the wry classicism befitting an age-old fable. In the best of all possible worlds, Honeymoons' weeklong run at MoMA would function as both a filmmaker's master-class and a tutorial on cooperation in a region where national borders and historical animosities usually prevent artistic and political flowering.
Beginning anew is not a straightforward prospect in a part of the world bubbling with such ethnic pride and prejudice. Contrasting deep-seated macro (and predominantly macho) hostility with the romanticism of young lovers is a tried-and-true narrative device that Paskaljevic deploys with spritely confidence. Rooting for the happiness of individuals is easy, particularly when hope itself is under attack, hemmed in by forces that appear petty, brutal and boorish.
We don't witness either couple actually get married, and yet Honeymoons is anchored by two terrific wedding sequences that propel the protagonists' journeys. For Maylinda (Mirela Naska) and Nik (Jozef Shiroka), traveling from their Albanian village to the big-city nuptials of his cousin represents an opportunity for escape that neither can let pass. Shy Maylinda was engaged to Nik's brother when he disappeared three years earlier on his way to Italy to earn money for their wedding. By patriarchal custom she is bound to wait for his return. Disowned by her own family, she cannot be released from her obligation. She lives under the same roof with Nik and his parents, who can't help but notice the bond that has developed between them. Visiting the capital city Tirana for the wedding is a watershed in the older couple's rural, tradition-bound lives as well.
Meanwhile, on the very same day in Belgrade, Serbia we meet cellist Marko (Nebojsa Milovanovic) and his companion, Vera (Jelena Trkulja). Marko has been invited to audition for the Vienna Philharmonic and with the date of their departure looming, they go to Vera's hometown to attend her cousin's wedding. Whereas urbanite-peasant tension supplies much of the drama during the first Albanian wedding, tandem feuds between Vera's father and uncle and also between Marko's liberal temperament and the xenophobia of the local Serbian youth provides conflict during the second ceremony. Scenes of revelry and domestic division are humorous and at the same time edge toward the tragic.
Paskaljevic shows the two weddings and their immediate aftermaths sequentially until, during the third reel, as the Albanians travel by ship to Italy and the Serbians to Austria via train, he cuts back and forth between the two couples. Both encounter officious, antagonistic Eurozone bureaucrats and are on the receiving end of dehumanizing behavior. Are their papers in order? Are they trafficking drugs? Were they involved in a recent bombing in Kosovo aimed at peacekeepers? Will Marko's delicate hands be damaged? Will Nik say something stupid while waiting for Italian officials to check his visa?
Throughout, Paskaljevic exhibits the steady hand of a mature filmmaker, which helps him proffer unassailable criticisms without lapsing into political or ethnic partisanship. Visually the film has an open, vibrant look enhanced by cinematography that makes revelatory use of both natural and manmade light sources. Expressive acting enforces the idea you're watching a movie that purposefully hovers between a bridge-building potboiler meant for domestic, Balkan consumption and an au courant declaration aimed at the outside world.
Honeymoons has an air of weary inevitability that doesn't preclude suspense. Likewise, the downbeat, inconclusive outcomes of both stories doesn't squelch the positive vibes of its forward-looking title. You don't want Honeymoons to be over quite so soon, but you know it must end at some point.
Distributor: The Museum of Modern Art
Cast: Nebojsa Milovanovic, Jelena Trkulja, Jozef Shiroka, Mirela Naska, Lazar Ristovksi, Petar Bozovic and Bujar Lako
Director: Goran Paskaljevic
Screenwriters: Goran Paskaljevic and Genc Permeti
Producers: Goran Paskaljevic, Ilir Butka and Nikolaj Divanovic
Genre: Drama; in Serbo-Croatian-, Albanian- and Italian-language, subtitled
Running time: 95 min
Release date: September 9 NY