It’s a hard-knock life for a young Kosavar lad in the unsentimental drama “Babai,” the feature debut of Kosovo-born, Germany-based helmer-writer Visar Morina. World premiered at the Munich Film Festival, the pic’s poignant subject matter apparently trumped its stolid, sometimes clunky execution, as it garnered three of four German Cinema New Talent kudos, plus the Lutheran Interfilm’s One Future prize. The awards haul increased in Karlovy Vary, where the film received the best director nod in the main competition and the Europa Cinema Labels prize for the best European film in the official selection. The topical nature of the narrative’s treatment of unwanted economic migrants might move niche arthouse players outside the co-producing countries; further fest play beckons.
Beginning in 1990s Kosovo, some time before the armed conflict with Serbia that took place at the end of the decade, the film focuses on small but determined 10-year-old Nori (Val Maloku), who, with his milquetoast father, Gesim (Astrit Kabashi), ekes out a meager living selling cigarettes on the street. Since Nori’s mother left the family, Albanian hospitality dictates that the pair can bunk down at the home of Gesim’s older relative, the domineering Adem (Enver Petrovci, in a ferocious turn). But with Adem’s eldest son due to marry, the room where Gesim and Nori sleep will soon be spoken for.
Perhaps due to the unstable foundations of his life, Nori cannot bear to be parted from his father, even though Gesim is only rarely depicted as affectionate, patient or even especially interested in his progeny. Since he is often treated as little more than a burden, tenacious Nori responds the only way he can, with keen observation and single-mindedness. Morina keeps the action tightly focused on Nori’s point of view and limited understanding; the framing is from his height, and the often muffled audio is the conversation of adults who want to hide information from him.
When Gesim ultimately manages to sneak away to try his luck in Germany, Nori determines to follow by whatever means necessary. Thus concludes the Kosovo portion of the pic, which is followed by a hard-to-watch section in which Nori joins ruthless people traffickers to make the long and dangerous journey to Deutschland. Expediently for the lad and the plot, he strikes up a wary partnership with Valentina (Adriana Matoshi), a friend of the family who treats him as schizophrenically as the other adults in his life — for starters, she steals his illicitly obtained stash of cash. The film’s final third unfolds in a dark and unwelcoming Germany, where Valentina’s macho hubby (Xhevdet Jashari) summons the weak Gesim to collect his vastly more resourceful son.
Morina’s screenplay is a sometimes annoying mix of the heart-rendingly credible, the naive and the implausible. Many of the characters fail to register, but that might be the fault of the blunt editing instead of the script. Nevertheless, the absence of melodrama in the storytelling is impressive.
The acting is similarly a mixed bag. Petrovici and Jashari provide an authority and presence that suggests some backstory, but in the crucial role of the father, Kabashi fails to bring any nuance to his playing. Luckily, bright-eyed Maloku manages to convey the wounded child within even as he lashes out at those who disappoint and cheat him. The tightly framed widescreen lensing by Matteo Cocco is the standout element of a gritty craft package.
Pic’s working title was originally “The Father,” but switching the moniker to Nori’s plaintive cry better captures the essence of the film.