Dreaming of the sea takes on weightier significance when the dreamer lives in a landlocked country. It’s not just an idle fantasy of beach holidays and salt-rimmed cocktails — though Vera (Teuta Ajdini Jegeni) would like that too — but as Kaltrina Krasniqi’s taut, sorrowful narrative feature debut “Vera Dreams of the Sea” proves, the vision of a vast blue expanse stretching out to a far horizon can also become tacitly political for a widow who suddenly feels the weight of Kosovan patriarchy bearing down on her already burdened shoulders.
Under the high-tension whines and see-sawing violins of Petrit Çeku and Genc Salihu’s sinister, interior-monologue score, we’re introduced to Vera, a middle-aged interpreter for the deaf. As frankly and fearlessly embodied by a terrific Jegeni, Vera is onscreen almost every moment, which is already a coup given that few are the films that take a woman of this particular lifestage and social class as their heroine. But this compact, elegant movie, which is edited by Krasniqi and Vladimir Pavlovski along a deceptively dreamlike yet pacy bias, is not just engaged in tokenism. It’s Vera’s individual reserves of resilience that allow her dormant independence to tentatively blossom, making this nuanced, nervy story as much a character portrait as it is a social critique.
It’s been a while since Vera has had to tap into those resources. This we infer from the very opening shot of her placid face, overlaid with an image of a gently sparkling ocean, as she has makeup applied for a TV appearance. Vera is a successful sign-language translator, who lives in a comfortable, if by no means fancy, apartment in Pristina. But while she can rightly consider herself self-made — the kind of well-liked woman whom shopkeekers trust to pay later if she’s caught short at the store — it’s perhaps also true that she has never really considered how much her marriage to Fatmir (Xhevat Qorraj), a respected retired judge, not to mention the capital city’s relatively progressive urban environment, have shielded her from the most biting excesses of Kosovan patriarchy.
Out in the countryside, villages are still run by de facto councils of local menfolk, whose handshake deals and wink-nudge gambling debts carry more weight than the strict rule of law. In one such village, Fatmir and Vera have a small house which they have been trying for years — she more than he, it is implied — to sell. Finally, Vera hears that since a highway is being built nearby, the place will be bought over at last. She gives the good news to Fatmir as part of his birthday present, chattering delightedly about the apartment they can now buy for their struggling actress daughter Sara (Alketa Sylaj), a single mother with a strained relationship with Father, as well as about the holidays and home improvements they can make. She doesn’t seem to notice Fatmir’s stonefaced reaction, and so has no inkling of his state of mind when in her brief absence while she pops down to the shops, Fatmir smokes a final cigarette and kills himself. The magnitude of the shock is cleverly underplayed in a striking long take as Vera goes through the terribly mundane, awkward business of getting in through a bathroom door against which his body has slumped.
Doruntina Basha’s sturdy, unsentimental screenplay never overwrites. Instead Krasniqi puts us into Vera’s point of view with scarcely a word: Vera polishing her dead husband’s shoes; Vera showing up to work despite her colleagues’ concerns; Vera, stoically listening to Fatmir’s cousin Ahmet (Astrit Kabashi), delivering flowery protestations of grief. But when Ahmet returns to claim that the house in the village belongs to him by rights, Vera finds her voice. And the men of the village, who know some unsavory, potentially ruinous truths about Fatmir, support Ahmet’s claim, and close ranks against her like a rural Kosovan mafia.
DP Sevdije Kastrati’s photography alternates between coolly composed wides and warm closeups, but is always fixated on Vera, sometimes at one with, sometimes at odds with her surroundings. But as crisply as the lines are drawn between the grand, inexorable forces of tradition meeting modernity and conservatism facing down progress, Vera can still surprise us, maneuvering an advantage — like the showdown she smartly engineers to take place in a deaf cafe — even with odds stacked against her.
Blerta Basholli’s Sundance hit “Hive” deals with many of the same issues, though “Vera” is arguably the more compelling title. Both, however, represent a new generation of female filmmakers from Europe’s youngest country, who are wise beyond their nation’s years in understanding that although empowerment comes with no guarantee of happiness — indeed it opens up the probability of endless struggle — it is better than contented, complacent ignorance. Dreaming is all very well, but you have to be asleep to do it.
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