Middle-generation Croatian helmer Zrinko Ogresta brings a new twist to the subject of postwar ex-Yugoslavia with the gripping psychological drama “On the Other Side,” co-written with the multi-talented playwright-screenwriter-composer-musician Mate Matisic. The action is seen through the eyes of a middle-aged Zagreb nurse whose war-criminal hubby contacts her out of the blue more than 20 years after he left the family. Further fest action is guaranteed for this emotionally complex, tautly assembled and powerfully acted pic, with niche theatrical play a possibility in some territories.
Is forgiveness possible? And is it ever possible to escape one’s past? These questions provide the pic’s underlying themes as Vesna (Ksenija Marinkovic), a middle-aged woman more or less on autopilot, is shocked into thoughts and feelings that she had long repressed after hearing the voice of her husband, Zarko (co-producer Lazar Ristovski, in one of the best roles he’s had in years), saying that he would like to see her and the kids again.
When Zarko went to fight for “the other side,” Vesna and her children, Vladimir (Robert Budak) and Jadranka (Tihana Lazovic), fled their small Croatian industrial town for the capital, where they could hide their identities and start anew. Vladimir is now a successful businessman with a young son of his own, and Jadranka is about to be married. Neither of them want any contact with their father, or to be connected in any way with the stigma of a convicted war criminal. But Zarko continues to call Vesna, often at night, when she feels most lonely and vulnerable. He tells her that he misses her and shares other feelings. Although she tries to remain distant, she is slowly drawn into caring about him again and even considers going to visit him in Belgrade.
Rather than delivering all the plot details upfront, the dynamic screenplay by Ogresta and Matisic doles out information in discrete chunks, requiring viewers to play close attention and also enforcing their identification with Vesna. It would be unfair to discuss the film’s ending, but suffice to say that it involves a twist that few will see coming, and includes a bravura visual that gives the audience more information than the protagonist.
Orgresta’s smart directing choices and refined visual style create a sense of anxiety that supports the storyline, using long takes (each scene is one uninterrupted shot) to bolster the authenticity of the action. He continually observes the characters through curtains, glass and other kinds of obstacles, conveying the sense of someone lurking and spying, though viewers don’t know who or why. It also provides a certain distance from the action that allows viewers to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Marinkovic, who recently starred in Mirjana Karanovic’s “A Good Wife,” is perhaps best known as a theater actress with numerous supporting roles in film. She’s absolutely marvelous as the lead here, allowing audiences to feel her raging emotions with just the subtlest of expressions.
The assembly is aces all around, led by stellar compositions from d.p. Branko Linta (“The Reaper”) and unobtrusive cutting by Tomislav Pavlic.