From the beginning, there’s something disconcerting about the exuberance of Lendita Zeqiraj’s feature debut “Aga’s House.” We’re immediately plunked down into the middle of a circle of women sitting on a remote Kosovan hillside in the sunshine exchanging salty anecdotes while preparing food. They laugh, bicker and throw cruel little jabs at one another, referring to age, attractiveness, sexual experience or lack thereof. But the bawdiness and hilarity feels volatile and precarious, as though it could end at any moment, as though these women, in their exile from society, are living as loudly and brashly as they can to drown out the ticking of the unexploded mine of the past over which they dance. For a film with so much laughter, “Aga’s House” is an intensely uneasy experience.
Four of the women have been living in this so-called “refuge house” for some time: the pretty, flirtatious, unserious Emira (Rozafa Çelaj); her best friend and sparring partner Luma (Adriana Matoshi); Kumrija (Shengyl Ismaili) the careworn mother of 9-year-old boy Aga (Arti Lokaj); and Gjyla (Meliahte Qena) a widow in her 70s who was forced from her family home after her son was killed in the Kosovan war, leaving her with no male relative. To this number is added a fifth, Zdenka (Rebekah Qena), a middle-aged Croatian woman whose arrival is viewed with suspicion by the rest of the gang.
Aga, however, restless, curious and street smart for one so young and living so far from the city, befriends Zdenka and so is the one to discover her unconscious form after she attempts suicide. The only option is to enlist the help of Cera (Basri Lushtaku) an oleaginous local grifter and the closest thing Aga has to a father figure. Not because Cera is trustworthy — indeed his ongoing harassment of Luma has earned a restraining order barring him from coming near the house — but because he’s the only person for miles around with a car, who can transport Zdenka to a hospital.
This is as much plot as Zeqiraj, who also wrote the fractious screenplay, doles out, and her terrific ensemble embraces the challenge of embodying these very real, frequently unlikable, damaged but resilient characters. Their crackling, cackling often contradictory interactions give the film its nervy immediacy, abetted by “Timbuktu” and “Blue Is the Warmest Color” DP Sofian El Fani, whose jittery camera pursues them in dogged long takes that land briefly on closeups before taking off again. The jagged filmmaking puts us at an intrusive proximity to these women, even while scraps of their banter and bitchiness refer obliquely to tensions that remain just outside the tight, claustrophobic frames. You don’t have to be an expert in Balkan conflict to extrapolate a whole history of resentment and pain in the spiteful rumor that Zdenka is in fact a Serb masquerading as a (naturally less contentious) Croat. Similarly, Aga’s paternity, Emira’s distressing past as a prostitute, Luma’s fraught fearfulness of Cera and Gjyla’s ongoing court case may all be exposed-nerve open secrets within that tiny community, but we only piece them together gradually. In some cases they remain frustratingly incomplete until the slightly inelegant introduction of a journalist character who is interested in hearing their stories explicitly told.
Zeqiraj, along with her sister Blerta, who made the excellent “The Marriage” in 2017 (also starring Adriana Matoshi), represents an exciting new moment in Kosovan cinema, determinedly revisiting the stories of those traditionally underrepresented in what remains a very patriarchal society. It’s a theme that is the through line of Lendita’s small filmography to date, including her celebrated previous film, “Fences” a short made considerably longer by the role call of festival laurels and awards that flash on screen before the opening credits.
But while there is much to admire in “Aga’s House,” Zeqiraj’s experience in short form also is telling in less constructive ways: The film’s abrasive style, and the intensity of its magnified gaze, which are great strengths in her shorts, pose a challenge over the length of a feature. Even the narrative has the shape of a short story, building up to a climactic reveal that’s not quite revealing enough to justify the movie’s hour and 47 minutes.
Aga’s coming-of-age arc gets somewhat lost amid the brighter, louder personalities of the women, and in general, it’s hard not to long for a few pauses for breath, a few change-ups in rhythm and texture that might have given the film a more novelistic resonance. The brittleness of Zeqiraj’s formalist approach is clearly intentional — and in its way, highly effective — but it leaves us just short of a holistic portrait of this fascinating cross-section of marginalized Kosovan womanhood, as its members struggle to find their place among a difficult peace still darkened by the long shadow of a traumatic war.