Director|Wrtier: Visar Morina
Cast: Val Maloku, Astrit Kabashi, Adriana Matoshi, Enver Petrovci, Xhevdet Jashari
104min Drama Albania
Visar Morina’s debut feature BABAI has had a successful summer winning him Best Director at Karlovy Vary and three awards at Munich Film Festival. The rites of passage road movie, set in 1990s Kosovo and seen through the eyes of a young boy, is also Albania’s hopeful for the Foreign Language Oscars 2016. 10-year-old Nori (Val Maloku) is a likeable and strong-willed kid, who sets out to join his father in Germany, with high hopes of a better life.
Naive in the extreme and sombre in tone, BABAI is nevertheless an absorbing coming of age tale that feels fresh in capturing the zeitgeist of its 21st century migration theme, despite a rather lacklustre cast who sadly fail to engage our sympathy but sometimes provide zesty, local humour – as seen during a Kosovar wedding.
It’s clear from the opening scene that Nori is determined to go to Germany. Hiding inside the boot of a car that’s taking his father Gesim (Astrit Kabashi), to the Serbian border, it establishes early on the desperation of the immigrant trail and also the love of this boy for his kind father, who clearly finds it difficult to be harsh on his wife or his little son, but needs to give them a better life. Throwing himself in the path of a bus, Nori ends up in hospital but his father is undeterred, leaving him with close family.
The war in Kosovo has not yet happened but the journey across Europe is still illegal and dangerous. Young Nori shows some guts, stealing money from his uncle and then setting out alone, once he’s better, cadging a lift from Valentina (Adriana Matoshi), a woman also planning to join her husband in Germany. Despite best intentions, it soon emerges that they both have their eye to the main chance, as is often the case, rather than working as a team.
Morino’s only fault in BABAI is a tendency for repetition and didacticism in his narrative that does his protagonists no favours. Everyone has witnessed the difficulties for poor European countries, but empathy needs to be engaged not with a wagging finger but by building rich characterisation and evoking strong performances from the leads. Val Maloku gives a feisty turn as Nori doing his best with a rather underwritten part in a drama that offers little room for reflection; everything focusing on the anger and determination of the journey.
Matteo Cocco’s stark, handheld camera echos the bleakness, sometimes featuring documentary-style shots that aims to add authenticity to the endeavour. But the ending comes a surprise that somehow feels unplanned and out of place, despite the considerable journey in getting there. MT
BABAI is ALBANIA’S FOREIGN LANGUAGE OSCAR ENTRY 2016 | REVIEWED AT THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2015