“It tastes like some godawful mixture of aspirin and cinnamon!” gurgles the aging, pain-wracked Sazdo (Anastas Tanovski) as he swallows his meds. His dutiful son Vele (Blagoj Veselinov) glances away to hide the sheepish look on his face: Vele’s a trainyard mechanic who hasn’t been paid in months, and has just crushed up a headache pill, mixed in some spice and passed off the concoction as a new formulation of the cancer medication they can no longer afford.
Dire economic straits, infrastructural decay, attempted suicide, family tragedy, illegal drugs, violent thugs, social malaise and aggressively painful, late-stage, metastasized lung cancer: Macedonian director Gjorce Stavreski’s “Secret Ingredient” should by rights be one of the most depressing films of the year. But instead, appropriately for a movie that deals, in its way, with miracles, it’s one of the funniest, smartest and most endearing. Perhaps it’s all the baking (both kinds).
As the film opens, Vele and his sardonic, outspoken cousin Dzhem (a wonderful Aksel Mehmet) are in the drab flat of a “healer” who is attempting to sell them tiny vials of “memory water” as cure-all panaceas. “Ah, like ‘Inception,'” nods Dzhem with wide-eyed disingenuity, as the charlatan explains the process by which this €25 thimbleful of water has been programmed to “remember” how to fight disease. As they leave unscammed, they pass a long line of patient souls waiting to go in and hear the man’s inane patter: Those desperate for a miracle are the most likely to believe they’ve found one, and there are a lot of desperate people in this shabby corner of rundown Skopje. Under low, gunmetal skies, the buildings are cracked concrete and the graffiti is not the funky artistic type, yet Dejan Dimeski’s deceptively artful cinematography gives these depressive, empty suburb-scapes their own kind of desolate beauty.
One afternoon Vele and his co-workers are tasked by the police with finding a cache of drugs hidden in one of the train carriages. By chance, Vele is the one who finds it, and in one of those split-second decisions that changes everything, rather than announcing the discovery, he reseals the hiding place, claims no luck and goes back after work to pick up the stash. It contains hundreds of ecstasy pills and a huge bag of weed, which after an abortive attempt to deal himself, Vele starts to administer to his father in thick slabs of pot-infused home-baked cake. However, with Sazdo vehemently anti-marijuana, Vele white-lies that the cake was given to him by a healer who wishes to remain off the radar. That ruse becomes increasingly difficult to maintain however, when an actual miracle does occur and not only does Sazdo’s pain subside, but his cancer goes into remission.
Soon there’s a crowd outside the door clamoring for the cake, to treat everything from paralysis to rheumatism to a nephew’s homosexuality. Meanwhile, an odd-couple of gangster goons are on the trail of the stolen drugs, and so this slice of mordant social realism morphs unexpectedly into a tightly plotted, richly characterful crime caper.
Black comedies are often cold, cynical things, excusing their mean spirit by eliciting nasty, complicit laughs. And stoner comedies often take the dozy altered states of their participants as an excuse for shambolic plotting. But “Secret Ingredient” defies both of those pitfalls: Its plot is a thing of beauty, in which all actions and quirks have consequences, but none seem reverse-engineered from those consequences. And while it may be scabrous in its critique of Macedonian social injustice, it’s truly fond of the people struggling under its burden, armed with nothing but doleful Balkan gallows humor. “Take that gun and kill your father,” calls a neighbor from her balcony when she spots Vele carrying their unreliable shotgun out of the house lest it again tempt Sazdo to suicide. “And then kill all your neighbors and everybody in this whole godforsaken country, please. Do us all that favor! Put us out of our misery!”
Unlike Vele who confesses to being “a guy who can really fuck up a perfect moment,” Stavreski walks the tightrope between dark and light with insouciant ease, and even has the audacity to land a little blow to the heart at the end. Vele and Sazdo’s relationship (entirely sold by Veselinov and Tanovski’s terrific performances) has grown around an old tragedy the way scar tissue forms around an unset fracture. And though they quickly settle back into their rhythms of combative irascibility when the kush hits, the most satisfying coup of Stavreski’s clever script is to bring that jagged father/son dynamic to a crescendo just when it counts. The delicious “Secret Ingredient,” which irrefutably launches Stavreski’s career but could even give the wider Macedonian film industry a contact high, thoroughly deserves to have its heavily weed-laced cake, and eat it.