A mother and her young son hit the road to find a new life in 'Mother of Asphalt.'

The holidays aren’t exactly merry and bright for the protags of “Mother of Asphalt,” the uncharacteristically subtle sixth feature of Croatian filmmaker Dalibor Matanic (“Cashier Wants to Go to the Seaside,” “Fine Dead Girls”). The scribe-helmer’s first screenplay collaboration with local playwright and author Tomislav Zajec focuses on a small family drama rather than crime or bizarro outcasts, and is the helmer’s most subtle and satisfying pic to date — even if it again runs a tad long. Beyond the Balkans, this is prime fest and broadcast fare that should travel roads far and wide.

Initially, pic plays like “Scenes From a Marriage With a Kid,” with thirtysomething hubby Janko (Janko Popovic-Volaric) listless and disinterested in his son, 7-year-old Bruno (Noa Nikolic), and wife, Mare (Marija Skaricic). He seems willing to make an effort only if sexual gratification is involved or if it will increase his standing with his buds — such as the expensive Zagreb apartment the couple has just bought.

Their marriage really starts to crumble when Mare is fired just before Christmas. When she refuses to sleep with Janko after an awkward dinner party, he hits her violently and unexpectedly, and Mare leaves, with Bruno in tow. She first lands at a girlfriend’s (Lana Baric), before the woman’s insensitive husband (Franjo Dijak) forces Mare out on the street, where she and the her son sleep in their car at night and aimlessly walk around Zagreb by day. She tells little Bruno they’re on an “adventure.”

Again, Matanic’ strong visual sense reinforces his storytelling, even if the real story here is much smaller and more intimate than in his previous pics. In the early reels, visual standouts include a handheld shot of Mare and Janko standing side-by-side during mass (suggesting they’re both looking for stability or guidance) but not looking at each other; and the sequence in which Janko beats Mare — a wide shot in a dark room that shows the couple’s silhouettes framed against a window through which Christmas lights are visible, relying almost entirely on the stark visuals to suggest the emotional impact of the blows.

Though the first two men Mare has had to deal with have been boorish, a third, beanpole mall cop Milan (Kresimir Mikic), is the pic’s example that good men do exist. Snippets of Milan’s solitary and dreary life are sprinkled throughout the narrative until his story and Mare’s finally overlap some 70 minutes in, with beautifully observed results — though the ending ties things up a little too neatly.

As is the case with the 35-year-old Matanic’s directorial peers, his contempo dramas chronicle not only the protags’ day-to-day problems but also the general difficulties his generation has had in adjusting to a new economic system, as well as the moral void and sense of lawlessness (and the resulting isolation and loneliness) that plague the postwar generation. Capitalism, the message seems to be, has drawbacks with its advantages.

As the protag who knows what she doesn’t want but is unclear about what she should do about it, Skaricic is luminous and convincing. As her hubby, Popovic-Volaric delivers a complex take on what could have been a one-note character. Supporting cast is solid.

Current edit slightly drags in the pic’s second half and could be shortened to heighten the emotional impact.

Other tech credits are strong.

Mother of Asphalt

Croatia

Production

A Kinorama production, in association with Hrvatska Radiotelevizija. (International sales: Soul Food, Belgrade.) Produced by Ankica Juric Tilic. Co-producer, Josip Popovac. Directed by Dalibor Matanic. Screenplay, Tomislav Zajec, Matanic.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Vanja Cernul; editor, Tomislav Pavlic; music, Jura Ferina, Pavao Miholjevic; production designer, Ivan Veljaca; costume designer, Ana Savic Gecan; sound (Dolby Digital), Dubravka Premar; assistant director, Ana Josipovic. Reviewed at Thessaloniki Film Festival (Balkan Survey), Dec. 9, 2010. Running time: 111 MIN.

With

Marija Skaricic, Janko Popovic-Volaric, Kresimir Mikic, Noa Nikolic, Franjo Dijak, Lana Baric.

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