The aftermath of wartime ethnic rape is the doleful subject of “Mirka,” a warm, sincere film with some big messages to spell out that many will find too predictably heart-tugging. High production values from some of Europe’s top actors and technicians could bolster pic’s B.O. chances before it finds a natural home on the small screen.
Film is deliberately set in an unidentified border country, but this geographical ambiguity poses an unnecessary puzzle. Everyone speaks Italian (in the Italo release print, anyway), and the breathtaking scenery is, in fact, northern Italy; but the story’s only likely setting is former Yugoslavia, where refugee committees estimate 1.5 million women were raped out of ethnic hatred during recent conflicts.
The lack of specificity is disturbing throughout this otherwise carefully crafted picture. At a time when Europeans are fiercely debating in what language to shoot co-productions, “Mirka” reps an interesting case. To keep the background neutral, Algerian helmer Rachid Benhadj (“Rose de sable,” “Touchia”) has carefully stripped the story of all national references, from street signs through local dialect to religion. Result of this one-world approach takes a heavy toll on character and dramatic believability, despite strong perfs all round.
Story is a simple parable about people’s fear of those who are different, heightened by the horror of an unforgotten war. Tough and weathered Kalsan (Vanessa Redgrave) runs a remote mountain farm with her 24-year-old granddaughter, Elena (Slovak thesp Barbora Bobulova), who is getting married. The appearance of 10-year-old Mirka (Karim Benhadj, the director’s son), a foreign child who has crossed the border looking for his mother, dredges up terrible memories and prejudice, as it gradually becomes clear that he is Elena’s wartime child.
But the town holds even more horrible secrets relating to events in a ruined fortress on a hill. Forbidden to all the townspeople, it is the haunt of a solitary bird catcher, Strix (Gerard Depardieu), who along with a little blonde neighbor girl is Mirka’s only friend.
Young Benhadj is effectively serious as the boy determined to find his mother; lovely Bobulova is a well-trained thesp who freely ranges between peasant joy and traumatic pain. The presence of Depardieu and particularly Redgrave provides a backbone of solid support, even in dubbed roles. Franco Nero pops up as a former wartime comrade of Kalsan; Sergio Rubini is workmanlike in the more substantial role of Elena’s fiance.
Shooting in Trento, between Ansel Adams-like mountains and forests, d.p. Vittorio Storaro adopts a plain style that expresses the grandeur of life, from an infinitely deep sky to a sunbeam whiting out a face. Gianni Quaranta’s timeless/placeless village sets have a fairy-tale feeling, while Mario Carlini’s costumes go whole hog on the crochet-and-knit ethnic look.