Belgrade in the second half of the 1990s: The war has not yet directly hit the city, but its emotional ravages — the rage, violence and trauma — have reached the perilous hoods. Spanning 48 hours and focusing on intersecting stories of three childhood friends who grew up together on the city’s mean streets, helmer-scribe Bojan Vuk Kosovcevic’s debut feature is a despairingly effective vision of hell on the homefront. Not for the faint of heart, “The Whirlpool” never lets its rampant destructiveness provide catharsis, as spiraling anger and despair pull viewers into a widening vortex. Outside the Balkans, it will mainly orbit fests.
The first installment in this trilogy of pain, cheerily titled “The Roots of Hatred,” centers on Bogdan (Nebojsa Djordjevic), leader of a skinhead gang who casually terrorizes anybody different. At first seeming more rational than his confreres, Bogdan has a run-in with old flame Mira (Marina Vodenicar) thatsomehow promises salvation. When she rejects him in favor of her present boyfriend, Kale (Srdjan Pantelic), the precarious survivor of crime-family wipeouts, this foiled attempt at change drags Bogdan deeper into explosive anger, his madness escalating with each of his unprovoked attacks. Flashbacks to his physically abusive father (Emir Kusturica) indicate less the root cause of his problems than his ultimate destiny.
“Twilight of the Gods” picks up the story of Mira’s lover, Kale, whose continued existence takes on a legendary quality as, against enormous odds, his quest to avenge dead gang members leaves him the last man standing in all shootouts. Haunted by the ghost of his drowned sister (Ivana Jovanovic), he pursues his deadly course despite Mira’s pleas and the threats of a hitherto-protective security-officer uncle (Dragan Nikolic). As with Bogdan, the miraculous vision of a better life briefly materializes only to herald a final deception.
Writer-director Kosovcevic then takes a fringe character from the other two stories, an artist driven by horrors he experienced as a soldier, and puts him at the center of the triptych’s final panel, fittingly called “The Whirlpool.” As Grof (Nenad Okanovic) explains to the ghost of his comrade-in-arms (the dead here are consistently more faithful companions than the living): “Once caught in a whirlpool, you must sink to the bottom where it is weakest in order to break out.” If unchecked aggression rules Bodgan and Kale’s actions, disintegration dogs Grof’s footsteps, horrific hallucinations of fragmenting faces and decomposing bodies populating his combat flashbacks. But then a huge mural he’s painting (of a nightmarish whirlpool) surreally self-destructs, revealing in its rubble a possible escape route.
Kosovcevic’s characters whiz around each other in a void, the promise of any connection tenuous at best. In this crazed inferno of a city, the director never allows his stories to intersect significantly; instead, short snippets of previous scenes, shot from different angles, set off minor shockwaves as seemingly separate worlds collide.
Tech credits sometimes tend toward the bare-bones. The tremendous emotional power unleashed by the actors, effectively captured by the pic’s three lensers, dominates throughout.