In Dubrovnik, as everywhere, the wealthy do not live near the airport — so much noise, so much traffic, so many planes overhead stealing sections of cloudless blue sky. Instead, the airport’s depressed, cracked-concrete environs are occupied by blue-collar families like the one at the heart of Andrea Staka’s third feature (after “Cure” and 2008’s Locarno-winning “Fraulein”), which gives “Mare,” as specific and intimate a portrait of female midlife dissatisfaction as you’ll find, its more universal striations of class and social awareness.
The contrast inherent in a narrow, proscribed life lived right next to a portal to the wide world is deftly reinforced. But “Mare” feels grounded in both senses: It is authentically rooted in its very specific locale, but as a story it is also overcautiously constrained, the narrative equivalent of being confined to quarters.
This sense of claustrophobia is of course part of the point. Mare (an excellent Marija Skaricic, who also starred in both of Staka’s previous films) is the capable, taken-for-granted mother of a troublemaking teenager and two younger kids, and the wife of big, gruff airport worker Djuro (Goran Navojec). Djuro, who like many men in the region is scarred by the memories of the Balkan Wars in which he fought, won’t hear of Mare working, so they are condemned to live off his meager paycheck, in a house that is not even their own, which they may have to vacate at any moment. And the washing machine is busted.
In this prosaic world of clotheslines, grocery shopping and dinner preparation, Mare, like many women in her circumstances, is both central to the physical and emotional well-being of her family, and wholly invisible to them. During the busy household’s shared bathroom ritual, first her husband then her daughter burst in and bustle around while she is sitting forlornly on the toilet. The idea of her as a person who might need privacy or have any sort of interior life simply does not seem to have occurred to them.
But then, it’s perhaps something that Mare herself has suppressed, the better to dedicate herself to the humdrum demands of insolvent family life here on the unromantic outskirts of touristy Dubrovnik. Which is why it’s such a surprise to her when, one windy day, attraction flares during a chance encounter with newly arrived Polish neighbor Piotr (Mateusz Kościukiewicz). With little hesitation — just enough to get him to fix the washing machine — Mare embarks on an affair that is both torrid and tender, especially contrasted with the few seconds of grunting thrusts that is her lovemaking with Djuro. The glamor of this illicit relationship, as well as the guilt, combine to bring a complicated light back into Mare’s eyes. At the very least, she is interested in herself in a way she has not been for a long time.
But while all these steps feel honestly earned, the journey of a middle-aged woman discovering some sort of liberation in an extramarital liaison is hardly untrodden ground. It feels a little disappointing that the story, which is admirable in its restraint but sometimes frustrating in its ambivalence, should feel so familiar after the eccentric, but quietly anthemic portraits of fraught female relationships that Staka has delivered before. And while the lead actress and the director have an obvious rapport, the film curiously underserves Skaricic, who with her densely packed, no-nonsense aura, her stubborn jaw and sensible mom-cut hair, projects almost too strong, too willful a presence for such a hesitant narrative.
It is shot with the stylistic boldness that the story lacks, however, with DP Erol Zubecvic’s close-up, aggressive Super-16 images giving the film a grubby, textured graininess that works its way into the story like grit beneath fingernails. And Ephrem Lüchinger’s music comes as a welcome, subtly disorienting surprise when it plays unexpectedly, accenting brief moments while the rest of the film, right up to its unresolved conclusion, is largely scoreless.
But the blowsy, up-front style cannot make any more epic the dimensions of a rather overfamiliar domestic drama. It has a faintly soap-opera vibe — a UK-style, kitchen-sink soap, that is, not one of its glossily over-the-top American counterparts. Without a stronger, more involving narrative framework, “Mare” perhaps works best as an intriguing, lived-in snapshot of its unusual, paradoxical location. Face away from the roads grown weedy with neglect, toward the rocky coastline and the sapphire sea sparkling darkly beyond, you could imagine yourself in paradise — until a plane roars overhead, and brings you down to earth.