A dying politician’s memories of surviving a Stalinist prison camp form the heart of the vivid and visceral “The Great Water,” latest in a wave of East European films considering the Communist era. Czech writer-helmer Ivo Trajkov (“The Past”) extends his well-developed felicity with sound and image while diving into a specifically Macedonian tale, based on the book of the same title by Zivko Cingo, one of the country’s major post-war novelists. Extraordinary perfs by a mostly young cast likely will be cancelled out by the grim subject. Still, fest berths for Macedonia’s official Oscar entry will be plentiful.
The image of an eye in ultra close-up is followed by Macedonian pol Lem Nikodinoski (Meto Jovanovski) rushed to the ER with a heart attack. He sees himself going back to a remote, dilapidated prison camp on the marshy coastline of one of Macedonia’s large southern lakes, where as a young orphan (Saso Kekenovski, in a stunning debut) after WWII he was dumped along with hundreds of other cast off youths.
“I was a scared little mouse,” Lem recalls (in English narration for the international version, spoken gracefully by Rade Serbedzija), and the casual brutalities of the camp create a terrifying milieu steeped in hopelessness.
Camp warden Ariton (Mitko Apostolovski) appears to be the ideal Stalinist strongman, and prefers being called “Daddy.” His aide-de-camp Olivera (Verica Nedeska) revels in a culture of punishment and crude political indoctrination when she isn’t sculpting a bust of Stalin on her free time.
True to form of political prisonhood tales, a strange outsider eventually turns the camp’s steady order upside down. Isak (a boy played by teen girl thesp Maja Stankovska) at first refuses to even acknowledge Lem, but eventually accepts the young boy’s interest, making him a blood brother. Isak is perhaps an excessively heavy-handed symbol of the film’s themes of spiritual (and Christian) liberation in the midst of oppression, but the boy’s actions carry an almost spectral power greatly enhanced by gifted Los Angeles-based d.p. Suki Medencevic, who gives the film a breathtaking beauty and texture that’s rare in most recent East Euro cinema.
“The Great Water” may deliver no new insights on the worst aspects of Communist oppression (particularly the long-familiar gap between the rhetoric of freedom and the reality of imprisonment), but pic’s balance of emotional truth in the hands of a talented cast and charged by Medencevic’s lensing and Kiril Dzajkovski’s powerfully moody score, reps a bold step forward for Balkan cinema.
Proving himself a master of widescreen mise en scene, Trajkov seemlessly weaves style and content to create epic moments out of intimate situations.