“Father” begins with a mother. Dragging her two sullen, uncomprehending kids along with her, Biljana (Nada Šargin) strides onto the grounds of the factory from which her husband was let go more than a year before and harangues the foreman about the severance package they still have not received. The children are hungry, she wails, there is no money to buy food. The milling workmen stare at her dumbly, a minor, pitiful inconvenience, until she unscrews the cap on a water bottle full of petrol, douses herself in it — trying also to soak her terrified children who wriggle out of her reach — and sets herself on fire. She burns for an impossibly long few seconds before the men regain their senses and rush in to tackle her to the ground.
This first scene in Srdan Golubović’s fourth feature is among the most viscerally upsetting openings imaginable, but while the rest of the bleakly compelling two-hour runtime occupies a less aggressive, more anti-climactic dramatic register, it is a declaration of the starkness and seriousness of Golubović’s intent which the whole story will bear out. Things can hardly get worse after a desperate act of self-immolation; but they can remain bad in a variety of new and differently terrible ways.
The action refocuses immediately around the woman’s husband, Nikola (well-known Bosnian actor Goran Bogdan from TV’s “Fargo”) as he hears about his wife’s attempt at protest suicide and rushes to the hospital. She is in recovery but borderline catatonic, and their traumatized kids — an older boy and a younger girl — have been taken away by social services. Nikola is not allowed to see or talk to them until the local authority, headed by petty tyrant Vasiljević (Boris Isaković) decides he is fit to parent them. But for venal reasons of his own, even after Nikola musters all his resources to meet the checklist of expectations they have for the children’s living conditions, Vasiljević denies his petition.
Nikola opts to appeal, but knows his application will be ignored in Belgrade and so resolves to deliver it to the relevant minister personally. Penniless, he sets out on foot — a cross-country odyssey of five days and nights hiking through the scrubby desolation of the nation’s rural landscapes and sleeping in abandoned gas stations, all without much real hope of justice at the end. “My children must know I fought for them” is all the taciturn Nikola offers by way of explanation.
There is something quasi-religious about Nikola’s quest, with his progress toward Belgrade recalling pilgrimages to sacred places and the testing of his body to its limits of exhaustion and hunger suggesting the mortifications of the flesh that supplicants would endure in the hopes that God would approve of their purity. But while DP Aleksandar Ilić’s imagery is austerely handsome, it’s also resolutely realist, and though his trials would put Job’s to shame, it’s never suggested that Nikola’s story can be simply romanticized as an allegory or a cautionary tale.
In long, spartan scoreless takes, he encounters animals and humans good and bad, lucky and doomed, but mostly Nikola is alone, and we can practically feel the weedy paths and cracked pavements under his feet. This places an extraordinary onus on Bogdan, who delivers a towering performance that somehow still manages to project smallness, as his ordinary-man character is progressively whittled down by outside forces until all that’s left is this rangy personification of utterly singleminded will.
The film feels very indebted to the Romanian social realist tradition, especially during Nikola’s interactions with authority figures. And Golubović is not only righteously scathing about both local bureaucratic callousness and the PR-managed stuffed shirts of central government (the ministerial assistant he finally meets asks for a selfie as Nikola has attracted a little TV news attention). In the final act, he also takes dolorous potshots at the “ordinary decent” folk of Nikola’s hometown. They may share many of the same problems, but instead of expressing neighborly solidarity, there are those who, shamefully, will not hesitate to exploit someone else’s ill fortune if they can see even the slightest advantage to themselves.
Will Nikola, like Job, regain some measure of grace if he stoically endures enough suffering? The barely discernible uptick of optimism that closes the powerful but grueling “Father” is a small mercy in suggesting he might. But it is also a white lie, because as the gravity of the film to that point reminds us, even if a given battle ends in unexpected victory for the little guy, the next day he and millions like him worldwide will be back to being combatants and casualties in the war on human dignity that is poverty. Perhaps Nikola is not Job after all, but Sisyphus.