Superbly modulated yet unrelentingly grim, “Mirage” builds upon a remarkable perf from young Macedonian newcomer Marko Kovacevic to tell the tragic tale of a talented schoolboy driven to violence through neglect and manipulation. Appropriately spotlighted in the “Discovery” sidebar of the Toronto festival, work reps a modest triumph of fearless acting and pointed social commentary in the same vein as “Ivan’s Childhood,” which “Mirage’s” first-time co-writers Grace Lea Troje and helmer Svetozar Ristovski acknowledge as a key influence. Sure to be in demand on the festival circuit, pic will ride strong reviews to solid arthouse numbers and firm ancillary.
In the Macedonian railroad town of Vece (Ristovski’s birthplace), young Marko (Kovacevic) endures a rotten home life that includes well-meaning but often sloppily drunk father Lazo (Vlado Jovanovski); mother, Angja (Elena Mose), whose spirit appears completely broken; and venal older sister, Fanny (Slavica Manaskova). His school life is no better, as the boy is routinely picked on and beaten by a gang of toughs led by Levi (Martin Jovcevski), hulking son of local cop Blasko (Dejan Acimovic). Clearly smart enough to keep his eyes open and his mouth shut, Marko spends most of his free time reading or playing chess at the local rail yard.
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The one glimmer of light in this otherwise seemingly pre-destined life is Marko’s Bosnian-born teacher (Mustafa Nadarevic), who encourages the boy to compose a poem for an upcoming national celebration and goes so far to suggest entering his writing in a Parisian poetry competition (“to breathe is to hope,” the educator says encouragingly). Marko becomes so engrossed in his task that he begins reciting the work in progress under his breath throughout the day, behavior that earns him a fresh round of beatings.
With the arrival in the rail yard of a friendly soldier of fortune coincidentally named Paris (Nikola Djuricko), Marko’s life begins to change. Paris, whose motto is “eat or be eaten,” teaches the boy to smoke, drink, steal and shoot, coaching him that “once you conquer fear, they will become afraid of you.” This advice proves prophetic, as a chain of events linking the teacher’s shocking cowardice, Paris’ abrupt abandonment of his friend and Levi’s increasing cruelty results in a desperate act on Marko’s part that seals his fate.
Though its downward trajectory may be obvious, the script is a marvel of clarity, economy and metaphor. Ristovski and the Canadian-born Troje are concerned with the ongoing corruption plaguing Macedonia, as well as the ripple effect the country’s slow collapse will have on future generations. Yet by creating a gallery of fundamentally decent but severely flawed characters, they’ve accentuated the heartbreak of good people caught in a system that shows no mercy to the weak and helpless. Like the single fresh bullet that replaces a pawn in Marko’s chess set, the threat of violence is never far.
Onscreen for most of the story, 12-year-old Kovacevic holds the camera with his wide-set eyes and dogged sense of survival. Jovcevski is frighteningly convincing as the amoral bully, while Nadarevic, who looks like an older, profoundly fatigued Liam Neeson, convincingly sells the teacher’s weakness without making him entirely craven.
Tech credits are pro, with good use made of the crumbling yet cozy village. Per press kit, Ristovski has recently relocated his Skopje-based Small Movies shingle to Vancouver, where he’s prepping English-lingo projects.