The line between despair and hilarity is a fine one in “Requiem for Mrs. J,” a Sahara-dry comedy of abject depression in Serbian suburbia that could play from certain angles as an entirely stern affair. The serpentine inefficiencies of national bureaucracy are bitterly satirized in writer-director Bojan Vuletic’s trim, impeccably composed sophomore feature, which follows a middle-aged widow through the uncertain corridor of suicide crisis — though it’s a tough call as to whether or not greater familiarity with these structures will enhance the film’s fragile humor for viewers or cause it to dissipate entirely. Either way, it’s a bleak trip to the emotional gallows, lent human shading and flickers of tenderness by Mirjana Karanović’s soulful, sorrowful performance in the title role.
Since its world premiere in the Berlinale’s Panorama strand, several Eastern European festival dates have been booked in for Vuletic’s film — the director’s first narrative work since 2011’s somewhat sunnier “Practical Guide to Belgrade With Laughing and Crying.” This statelier “Requiem” should continue to find traction on the international fest circuit, though distribution beyond native and neighboring borders (as well as in co-producing country France) will be more of a challenge for a film subtly but critically steeped in Balkan social politics: The eponymous protagonist’s struggle to assert her place in the world following her husband’s death is indirectly redolent of Serbia’s own transitional post-independence state, her inner pain further complicated by social hardship and institutional incompetence.
From the film’s opening frames — initially dun in appearance, until one notices the heightened, methodical precision with which cinematographer Jelena Stankovic has expertly assembled them — it’s clear how much Mrs. J has receded into the background of even her own life. Widowed nearly a year and still in paralyzed mourning, she can scarcely muster the motivation to leave her armchair, let alone her drab, boxy apartment, which is falling into desperately cluttered, dust-clouded disarray before her own indifferent eyes. She’s equally remote and unresponsive to the squabbling and individual emotional crises of her two daughters, including adult-age Ana (an excellent Jovana Gavrilović); in this unhappy household, the women may be connected by grief, but they hardly share it.
In one particularly masterful shot, the viewer’s eye is so distracted by the superficial paraphernalia of Mrs. J’s life — from a wealth of ignored bric-a-brac to the gaping gray hole of an unplugged television set in the middle of the room — that it’s some time before we notice her quietly loading a gun at the kitchen table in the background. For Mrs. J has only one date in her otherwise yawningly empty diary: She’s privately planning to blow her brains out on the first anniversary of her husband’s death.
Before that can happen, however, there’s some tedious life admin to get out of the way, from securing a state medical card to canceling her insurance to simply getting her name on her husband’s soon-to-be-shared gravestone — matters that, thanks to the state’s dizzying, impenetrable concentric circles of dysfunctional administration take far longer than they should. The irony is a pointed one: What Mrs. J intends to be her final days are consumed with protracted errands that are soul-destroying, but also quite literally life-extending. As her view on the world is gently tilted by fate and circumstance — not all of it tragic, as it turns out — Karanović’s stoic performance reveals new facets, faint glimmers of mirth and romantic urge, finally and cathartically culminating in a melodic, bittersweet spillage of feeling.
Some viewers will be grimly tickled by this spiraling catalogue of woe, while others may be merely harrowed. Vuletic’s deft balancing of hard realism with nightmarish absurdism can be appreciated from either perspective, however, as the mordant tone occasionally approaches that of a kitchen-sink Kafka. One wonders how many future festival lineups will see “Requiem” sharing space with recent Cannes entry “A Gentle Creature,” Ukrainian auteur Sergei Loznitsa’s more extravagantly allegorical tale of a woman’s bureaucratically thwarted personal mission, to which Vuletic’s more modest film is surprisingly complementary.