A mini-drama illuminated by carefully observed detail and touching moments but fraught with the frustration of an under-powered storyline, “Armin” just misses being a charmer. Skirting pathos in its echoes of Visconti’s “Bellissima” and De Sica’s “Bicycle Thief,” Croatian writer-helmer Ognjen Svilicic describes a poor Bosnian father’s journey to the Croatian capital to get his epileptic son a role in a movie. Fest appreciation, especially for Emir Hadzihafizbegovic’s career high as the concerned pere, is bound to follow and will probably be the film’s greatest reward.
Though there’s no faulting Svilicic’s noble intention to convey the Bosnian people’s struggle for dignity and respect in the wake of a devastating war, there is something strained and a tad paternalistic in his outsider’s view that doesn’t jive with the more personal and upbeat tone of home-grown Bosnian filmmaking.
In any case, it’s a better p.o.v. than that of the fictional German filmmakers, who only want to exploit Bosnia’s woes. Fortunately, the message part of the film is overshadowed by realistic, down-to-earth performances of a small, well-directed cast.
We meet Ibro (Hadzihafizbegovic) and his 14-year-old son, Armin (Armin Omerovic-Muhedin), catching a bus out of their Bosnian village for Zagreb, where Armin is to audition for a role in a German movie about the Bosnian war. Stocky and bashful, the boy hardly looks like talent material as his anxious father gets them settled in a fancy hotel. The set-up suggests Armin will suddenly pull extraordinary talents out of a hat, but apart from a beautifully rendered folk song that he plays on his accordion, story goes in another direction.
Pushy and ambitious for his son, the backwoodsey Ibro fights off initial rebuffs from the Germans, eventually winning Armin a private audition. Much ado is made of the boy’s “condition,” which is presumably epilepsy, but in reality he seems like any normal, awkward teenager being put into embarrassing situations by his dad. His desire to please his father, and his father’s to make him happy, constitute the meat of the story.
If the whole film revolved around the poignancy of dashed hopes and vain illusions, it would be a paltry disappointment, but thanks to the theatrically detailed depiction of a father-son relationship by the two principals, “Armin” flies higher than that. Hadzihafizbegovic puts a warm, human face on Ibro, a nice guy from the sticks whom his son accurately describes as “an ordinary-looking man.” His bumpkin’s seriousness plays off well against the natural comedy of the baby-faced Omerovic-Muhedin.
The German film crew, which includes Marie Baumer as an alcoholic actress and Barbara Prpic as an efficient production assistant, provides the needed contrast with a modern, monied world that exploit countries such as Bosnia as the subject for war films and cloying documentaries.
Almost entirely shot in a modern hotel without musical comment, film is cleanly lensed against neutral backgrounds that make the most of close-ups, keeping the focus on the human drama.