When Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy “broke” the Cannes Critics Week selection six years ago with the devastating “The Tribe,” casting deaf actors in an institutional parable exclusively told through sign language, it seemed some sort of event horizon for authenticity and formal daring had been reached. But the deserving Best European Film winner in the Giornate sidebar of the 2020 Venice Film Festival, “Oasis,” which is director Ivan Ikic’s second feature after 2014’s raw and rattling football-hooliganism drama “Barbarians,” may outmatch even that benchmark. An unadorned three-way love story set within the joyless confines of a Serbian institute for people with mental disabilities, it is an unsparing though enrichingly shot tragedy, and its three young stars, as well as most of the background cast, are learning-disabled residents of the facility in real life.
The approach lends the slight story an impressive gravity, while also treating its subjects with profound respect — a quality deliberately shown to be lacking in the provocatively discomfiting opening. In boxy archival footage taken from a newsreel-style promo about the 1969 opening of the institute, the presenter talks up its progressive credentials in cringingly dated language: “Sadly the modern world has always shown a lack of understanding for these unfortunate beings,” he intones jauntily, “In ancient times the ill-born were slain or drowned in the sea.”
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Still, when we cut to the present as Marija (Marijana Novakov) is brought to the institute by her carer (Marusa Majer, one of only two professional actors in the cast), the jarring contrast between the peppy, sherbet-colored vintage promo and the deep shadows and grimy undertones of DP Milos Jacimovic’s handheld camerawork, is unmistakable. Society at large may have come far with respect to the terminology we use to describe mental disability, but it remains an issue that tends to be pushed to the margins of discourse, and in which we invest only scant resources, signaled by the institute’s general air of neglect, its rickety bunk bed frames and stained tile grouting.
The first third follows Marija as she reluctantly settles in, befriending Dragana (Tijana Markovic), who will take the lead in the second act, and developing a crush on Robert (Valentino Zenuni), the central character in the final section. Dragana is the most outgoing of the three, but is also revealed to be the most manipulative, especially when threatened by Marija’s connection with Robert, who never speaks but seems to bond with Marija in a touching yet ominous scene where they compare the ladders of self-harm scars that extend up their inner arms. The two young women fall out as Dragana jealously reasserts her claim on Robert’s romantic attentions, to the point of claiming to be carrying his child.
There is indeed a pregnancy. There is also a moment of shocking violence, as well as a great deal more self-harm, rendered in such an unflinching manner that a trigger warning is definitely advisable. But while all this high drama might suggest a breathless, thrillerish pace, actually over the film’s slightly overlong two hours, the rhythm is much more subdued, and flags further in the final third. But its ascetic presentation has many merits too: Forgoing even the emotive crutch that is score, Ikic instead lets Ranko Paukovic’s sensitive and precise sound design enhance the sense of isolation in this hermetically sealed little world, and magnify the three-pronged psychological character study that is its heart.
This is a film fascinated by the young cast’s faces, often shot in closeup, even when they’re interacting, and which, especially in the absence of much dialogue, carry a great deal of the film’s dramatic weight. And despite this unwavering attention and their non-professional status, the three principals each give rivetingly composed performances, in which the gap between the actor and the role loosely based on him/her is narrowed almost to zero.
But if the casting coup the three central characters represent does immediately shut down the traditional debate about representations of disability by non-disabled actors, it also opens up deeper, knottier questions — about the impact on the real people behind these characters — that, especially given the narrative’s doomy turn later on, even the compassionate restraint of Ikic’s filmmaking cannot quite answer. We spend so much time with them, simply watching each other across the canteen, strolling in the grounds or brushing their teeth in the communal bathrooms, that we can’t help but understand that this is part of their everyday routine, and yet here they are re-creating it as fiction. How has this altered their perception of their world, if at all? Is there some sort of therapeutic outcome in playing a version of yourself whose story ends differently to your own? Jacques Rivette’s famous aphorism, that every film is a documentary of its own making, seems very present here, and yet rarely does it seem so true that the putative documentary might actually eclipse the fiction in terms of insight. As powerful, and on its own terms complete, as it is, “Oasis” also is a door left ajar, giving onto a larger story not yet told.