While its themes are thoroughly Yugoslavian, “A Stranger” feels utterly Romanian. Acclaimed stage director Bobo Jelcic uses the neo-docu handheld style of tight shots, ultra-natural acting and overlapping dialogue that’s become a signature of new Romanian cinema, exhibiting masterly control in this Mostar-set drama of conflicting loyalties. Set on the day of a funeral, the pic delves into the crushing ethnic tensions that, 18 years after the war, continue to infect daily life, making the city itself the stranger of the title. A film that benefits from post-screening contemplation, “Stranger” will be a challenge for auds beyond festivals.
Due to the oblique way it deals with issues of broken friendships, fear of ostracism and family conflict, the film also presupposes a modicum of knowledge of the former Yugoslavia’s civil war and, in particular, the dispiriting place Mostar still occupies in the region’s psyche (the famed reconstructed bridge, a symbol of the conflict’s nihilistic fratricide, is but briefly glimpsed). With so many interesting films begging for arthouse attention, “A Stranger” will need the kindness of many to stand out in the crowd. Local play, however, should generate spirited debate.
The death of Dulaga (Nermin Tulic) precipitates the story. His longtime friend Slavko (Bogdan Diklic, “No Man’s Land,” “Grbavica”) is thrown into a panic: Dulaga’s family is Muslim and his is Catholic, and Slavko fears that attending the funeral will be seen by local leaders as unforgivable fraternization with the enemy. For Slavko, this isn’t a passing fear but one that takes control of his every nerve ending, with potential consequences so serious they needn’t be voiced aloud to wife, Milena (Nada Durevska, “Days and Hours,” “Grbavica”).
Just figuring out how to get to the funeral on the other side of town is already difficult. Neighbor Milan (Vinko Kraljevic) backs out of driving them, and when Slavko decides they’ll walk, he chooses a hidden, roundabout path. Getting back is also problematic: The dead man’s daughter Zehra (Ivana Roscic) offers to drive the couple she affectionately calls aunt and uncle, but his fear of being seen with a Muslim woman leads to an awkward passive-aggressive altercation. Clearly, it was not always thus.
Slavko is most preoccupied with getting in touch with a man named Dragan (it’s ambiguous if he’s a clan or community leader, but he’s certainly someone who commands respect). But the lack of communication between them throws Slavko completely off-balance, as he’s terrified that Dragan’s unavailability means he’s “more on their side than ours.” Jelcic doesn’t explain what the ramifications of this would be, but it’s potent enough for Slavko to imagine death, either by suicide or accident, as a release from the strain.
Though Erol Zubcevic’s Red camera is almost always on the rheumy-eyed Slavko, his thin, sallow skin and slightly unshaven face the very image of a man crushed by inner turmoil, the film belongs just as much to Milena. Her solidity and ability to keep everything together rarely waver, and yet the couple’s inability to speak their fears aloud in a straightforward manner contributes to the pressure-cooker atmosphere. There’s an especially good scene toward the end, as Milena makes pastry in their small kitchen and Slavko, in need of warmth, tries to embrace her from behind; she rejects his touch, unable to allow herself the collapse that may come from a relaxation of tension. Diklic and Durevska, leading stage thesps at home, know how to weigh each word and gesture, unaffected by the camera’s proximity.
Lensing is invariably tight, like an eavesdropper hovering behind (too much so — Jelcic shares with many helmers an over-fondness for the backs of heads) and then circling in front, or lingering on Slavko’s careworn features. Though much of this style has become predictable, the helmer includes a few surprise sequences of startling power. Croatian title translates as “Defense and Protection.”