Personal tragedy is effectively welded to social criticism in the small but powerful naturalistic drama “These Are The Rules,” the fifth feature from Croatian helmer-writer Ognjen Svilicic. Heart-rendingly poignant yet devoid of sentimentality, the tightly scripted tale centers on an ordinary working-class couple facing every parent’s worst nightmare. As they endure a wrenching ordeal, they are forced to re-examine their lives and question everything they had believed in. A popular fest item since its 2014 Venice fest world preem (where lead Emir Hadzihafizbegovic nabbed the best actor kudo in the Horizons section), the film should repay wider distribution.
Working on multiple levels while running a trim 78 minutes, the pic comments on a transitional period in Croatian society, where things are changing rapidly and not everyone is keeping up; where order breaks down and compassion barely exists. From the very first shot, as a young man in a hoodie crosses a busy street in the middle of traffic, eschewing the crosswalk, Svilicic sets up an opposition between the conduct of contemporary youth and that of the older generation — who, reared in the highly regulated Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, have internalized different beliefs, expectations and standards of behavior.
Mild-mannered bus driver Ivo (Hadzihafizbegovic) and housewife Maja (Jasna Zalica, excellent) share a small apartment in a drab Zagreb suburb with their 17-year-old son, Tomica (Hrvoje Vladisavljev). The loving couple lead quiet, regimented lives: work for him, morning exercise for her, shoes in a neat row by the door, meal preparation tasks equitably divided, evenings spent on the couch watching television, and small talk that sounds like an iteration of what has been said many times before. The boy, meanwhile, mostly keeps to his room, his interests and activities barely on his parents’ radar; they’ve never even met his girlfriend Tea (Veronika Mach).
When Tomica emerges for dinner one evening, badly bruised and bleeding, it shocks his parents. He remains tight-lipped about his injuries, maintaining that he got into a fight the night before. Maja insists on a trip to the hospital, where Ivo cautions them against mentioning the fight, since it might mean involving the police — in his mind, an institution to be avoided except as a last resort. One cursory examination and X-ray later, Tomica returns home, diagnosed with a mild concussion. But later that night he collapses on the bathroom floor.
His stunned parents follow the ambulance to the hospital, diligently stopping for the red lights along the way. But the hospital bureaucracy proves cold and sometimes downright rude, uninterested in helping and barely passing on information. “I asked nicely but it was no use,” Ivo tells Maja when she agitates to know more. Why must they wait to see him, she wonders. “Because they’re the f—ing rules,” he explains. His cursing signifies true distress, unlike that of the foul-mouthed teens who ride his bus.
When Tea shows Ivo and Maja a cell phone-filmed video of the attack on Tomica, they can barely comprehend it. Why would someone film such a thing? And post it on Facebook? The attitude of the police further shakes their faith in the state of the world. When they show the video to a bored officer at the central police station, he tells them it would be inadmissible as evidence. Moreover, he notes, they should have reported the attack at their neighborhood station, that’s the way things are handled these days, but he will let them fill out some paperwork.
The fact that the parents are played by Bosnian thesps adds another layer to the drama. Could the fact that they are not native Croats have anything to do with their shabby treatment? Perfectly understanding the tone of modesty and restraint that characterizes the entire pic, Zalica and Hadzihafizbegovic provide understated performances that become more and more moving as the story progresses. Yet the film ultimately belongs to Hadzihafizbegovic, who was also devastating in Svilicic’s 2007 father-son drama, “Armin.”
The solid craft package is led by sensitive, tightly framed lensing by French d.p. Crystel Fournier (“Girlhood”) that subtly captures details, while diegetic sound and music contribute to the naturalism. Showing an impressive ability to evoke maximum feeling with minimal means, helmer Svilicic makes clever use of repetition, particularly in the food preparation scenes that essentially bookend the film. While outside the world remains the same, for the couple in their small flat, things are changed forever, but they can bravely try to derive comfort from routine.