An illegal immigrant in Berlin tries to earn the dowry demanded by the family of his pregnant beloved back home in social-issue drama “The Albanian.” German helmer-writer Johannes Naber’s involving feature debut highlights the difficulties facing undocumented workers in highly regulated Deutschland, as well as the honor codes of Albanian clans. Specialized Euro exposure and further fest travel are in the cards.
Opening reel shows the financial straits facing handsome Arben (appealing Nik Xhelilaj, “Alive!,” who looks set for a big international career) and his male relatives, who return to their mountain village after a six-month stint working in Greece: With visa costs and other expenses, they’ve managed to clear only about €2,500 (a little more than $3,200) each. Arben wants to marry Etleva (newcomer Xhejlane Terbunja), daughter of a neighboring clan, but her father has promised her to another man in return for €10,000.
When it turns out Etleva is carrying Arben’s child, the pressure is on for him to come up with the dowry before the baby is born — and before her brothers take revenge for the dishonor he has brought their family. Fleeing to Berlin without papers, experience or knowledge of the language, Arben soon learns the ways of survival.
Although it veers into melodrama in the final reel, Naber’s nuanced screenplay convincingly traces Arben’s transformation from naive innocent to desperate criminal, with the countdown to the baby’s birth adding tension.
Some viewers might find the exploited-worker/human-trafficking scenario reminiscent of Hans Christian Schmid’s “Distant Lights” or Damjan Kozole’s “Spare Parts,” but Naber keeps Arben’s story tied to the character’s aspirations and customs.
Appearing in practically every scene, Xhelilaj manages to maintain audience sympathy for Arben, even when the character makes some bad decisions. He’s backed by a strong cast of Eastern European and German thesps, including Amos Zaharia as the cocky younger brother who fails to handle Arben’s affairs with due seriousness; Ivan Shvedoff as Arben’s friend of the streets, who introduces him to the shady world of black-market labor; and Stipe Erceg as a slick human trafficker.
The polished tech package is led by Sten Mende’s strong lensing, which contrasts the wild mountainous vistas of Albania with the dark enclosed spaces inhabited by illegal workers in Germany.
“The Albanian” world preemed in competition at the Moscow film fest, nabbing a special jury prize and the actor kudo for Xhelilaj.