Misery and despair in small town Slovenia is the subject of “Bread and Milk,” a grim vision of human failings whose rigorous style and very authentic setting won director Jan Cvitkovic the Best First Feature prize at Venice. Thankfully, the drab realism of the black-and-white lensing and Peter Musevski’s shuffling and bleary-eyed central perf as a drunk abruptly give way to a wildly unexpected finale full of black humor. Pic is a fine calling card for the director and a festival shoo-in, but its subject matter is not what wide releases are made of.
Ivan (Musevski) is released from a hospital where he has been undergoing treatment for alcoholism. At home, his wife Sonja (Sonja Savic) puts on a cheerful face and hopes things have changed. But Ivan’s good resolutions waver at the first invitation for a drink. His long-lost pal Armando (Perica Radonjic-Pepi) insists on celebrating their chance encounter in the local tavern. When he reveals that he once went to bed with Sonja before her marriage, Ivan starts knocking back brandies. The scene reads like a bar room chestnut in desperate need of a twist, but instead Cvitkovic drops the joke and serves up the unpleasant consequences.
While Ivan is getting smashed, his teenage son Robi (Tadej Troha) turns up in the back shooting heroin and mirroring his weakness in the next generation. Sonja’s desperate visit to the tavern to drag Ivan home is ill-timed, and she is arrested for disturbing the peace. Then, just when all seems lost, pic switches gears into black comedy for a denouement that has little to do with what went before. Though it doesn’t illuminate the characters, it ends the film on a note of mild amusement rather than total depression. Life goes on.
Musevski is nuanced and convincing as the ineffectual husband and father; despite his obvious love for his family, he’s unable to pick himself out of the gutter long enough to bring home a loaf of bread and bottle of milk. Savic, playing his stronger wife and the family’s last hope for stability, deftly overturns expectations in the rousing tavern scene where Sonja falls to pieces. Here, too, the boundary line separating tragedy from comedy is approached, but not bridged very well.
Cinematographer Toni Laznik’s bland, low-contrast B&W underlines the ordinary, everyday quality of the tale.