A pleasingly melancholy dramedy from first-time feature helmers Iris Elezi and Thomas Logoreci, “Bota” illustrates the complicated relationship Albanians have with their dark past. Set in the country’s isolated marshlands, the cleverly constructed film offers a multilayered slice of life and, like the swampy ground on which it is set, gradually reveals unexpected depths. Compelling, surprising and tenderly performed, this low-key arthouse title deserves further distribution and clearly marks its co-directors as talents to watch. It will represent Albania in the foreign-language Oscar race.
The title, which translates as “The World,” refers to the cafe-bar where most of the action unfolds. Perched on stilts, with a dilapidated Mercedes on the roof and mint-green walls full of original artwork, Bota is the spot where the hopes and dreams of the three main characters are revealed — and often dashed.
Bota overlooks a dusty road on the outskirts of a small village, consisting of a few run-down communist-era high-rises. Throughout the film, a running joke sees herds of animals wander by — sheep, cows, even ducks. So little happens in the vicinity that the chief waitress, Juli (Flonja Kodheli), doesn’t even have a cell phone. But in the old times, under the dictator Enver Hoxha, the area housed a penal camp for “enemies of the state,” some of whom were even executed there, and their bodies thrown into the marshes. Now, the construction of a nearby highway creates hope that progress and perhaps even some prosperity may be at hand.
Juli grew up with her great-aunt Noje (Tinka Kurti, the first lady of Albanian cinema), but neither Noje nor Juli’s conniving older cousin, Benni (Artur Gorishti), the owner of Bota, ever discusses family history. Still, Juli and fellow waitress Nora (non-pro Fioralba Kryemadhi, who brings a Marilyn Monroe-like vulnerability and sexuality to the role) feel trapped by the past. They can see the promise of modern Albania, but are somehow unable to find a way to claim their place in it. Meanwhile, slick, polyglot Benni, a generation older than the girls and an opportunist of the first order, is one of the few who found the means to leave the village. Although Noje and Juli don’t realize it yet, his profit comes at their expense. Nora, too, suffers at his hands: She’s his mistress and pregnant with his child.
While the film exudes considerable charm throughout, perhaps the helmers’ most seductive scenes take place during a lively nighttime celebration that Benni hopes will lure investors for Bota. The lensing, editing, performances and music capture a magical, but sadly only momentary sense of potential for the characters.
In other hands, the narrative would ultimately culminate in a raucous and violent Balkan bacchanal, but Elezi and Logoreci constantly and delightfully confound expectations. They keep the quirky action and tone true to their extensive character development. Ugly secrets from the past finally come to light, but the ending offers a glimmer of hope and a sense of reconciliation with the past.
Not only does the screenplay (by Elezi, Logoreci and Stefania Casini) weave in little-known Albanian history, but it also tips its hat to Albanian cinema and literature with clips from an iconic adaptation of Booker Prize-winning novelist Ismail Kadare’s “The General of the Dead Army.” It also scores with some pleasingly spiky dialogue delivered with great comic timing. Perhaps the best exchange comes from handsome highway engineer Mili (Alban Ukaj), who has his eye on Juli, even though he does his best to deny it, telling his Italian colleague Filipo (Luca Lionello), “I stopped dating Albanian women when I was 14. They only want one thing.” “Marriage?” Filipo wonders. “Drama,” replies Mili.
The production package is aces all around; the attractive music track incorporates beguiling Albanian pop tunes of the 1960s to atmospheric and nostalgic effect.