The recent horrors in Afghanistan have once more exposed the callousness with which too many residents of Europe and the U.S. speak of refugees, whereby displaced human lives become numbers, coldly counted and ranked on a long list of national priorities: not people to be saved, but problems to be solved. If there’s room for them at all, that’s all the reward one dare ask for. To bring up other human needs, of emotional or intellectual fulfilment beyond a roof to sleep under, is to be ungracious in the eyes of the media and the privileged public.
But man cannot survive on survival alone, a point that Serbian director Stefan Arsenijević’s modern refugee fable “As Far As I Can Walk” makes with hushed, heartbroken clarity. A portrait of a Ghanaian refugee couple settled — practically, if not spiritually — in a shabby but serviceable Serbian camp, it begins where many a refugee survival saga would end, regarding its characters’ lives as restive rather than resolved. Aspiring pro footballer Samita (Ibrahim Koma) is more patient than his actor wife Ababuo (Nancy Mensah-Offei), for whom each day spent on the outskirts of Belgrade pushes her dreams further into the realm of fantasy. Is she ungrateful? If you see ambition only as the preserve of the permanently settled, then yes.
It’s been a while since we last heard from Arsenijević, who scored an Oscar nomination and a Berlinale Golden Bear for his 2003 short “A(Torzija)” and made his feature debut with 2008’s “Love and Other Crimes,” but has taken until now to deliver a sophomore effort. Fans of “A(Torzija)” will recognize that film’s lyrical humanism in “As Far As I Can Walk,” which took the top prize in competition at Karlovy Vary. The predominantly English-language film should gather further interest from festival programmers and art-house distributors on the strength of its topicality and emotional accessibility.
Samita and Ababuo are introduced in a tender, tactile embrace that turns out to be less intimate than they’d like: They’re on a single bunk bed in a shared dormitory, and while they and their diverse roommates make the best of it, their relationship has clearly suffered under the setup. A recent setback hasn’t helped: Their attempt to enter Germany, their ideal destination, resulted in their being deported back to Serbia. Samita, who has been making headway in the local football club circuit, is happy to remain; less so Ababuo, who has no outlet for her acting abilities, and can’t make her husband hear her frustration.
Until, that is, she suddenly makes her escape, joining a pair of Syrian refugees and heading for the Hungarian border, leaving her shell-shocked husband in the lurch. Pursuing her beyond the border will cost him his precious right to asylum. Awaiting her return might mean losing her forever. Cue a one-man trek to find her, by foot, rail and the occasional assistance of viciously exploitative trackers. It’s an old-fashioned romantic quest determined by cruelly contemporary human factors, and richly shot by cinematographer Jelena Stanković with rolling, expansive scope and a man-against-the-world point of view. The film’s damp, autumnal middle-European vistas never feel emptily pictorial in their beauty. Rather, they’re hard, gaping evocations of distance to be covered.
A device likely to go over the heads of many international audiences, however, is the film’s grafting of Samita and Ababuo’s simple story onto an allegorical retelling of “Strahinja Banović,” a medieval epic poem well known in Serbia (and filmed by Croatian director Vatroslav Mimica in 1981 as “The Falcon,” starring Franco Nero) but that won’t have much resonance for the unacquainted. “As Far As I Can Walk” posits Samita as a latter-day version of Strahinja — a valiant Serbian nobleman set on a tragic mission to find his abducted wife — via a detached Serbian-language voiceover that maps his progress in elevated, poetic terms. It’s pretty enough, but feels more like an overlay than a defining concept: All too easily, it could be lifted out of the film at little cost to its thematic heft or rhythmic flow.
That’s in no small part because the film’s two excellent leads are doing the heavy lifting. Arsenijević’s script, co-written with Bojan Vuletić and Nicolas Ducray, occasionally overwrites their emotions: In one scene, the spouses tell each other what’s missing between them, in ways the performances have long made clear.
Shouldering the film alone for much of its screen time, French star Koma is quietly reticent but never impassive on screen. His reconsiderations of his life and marriage up to this point play out on his face in palpable waves of anger, resignation and self-recrimination. Ghanaian actor Mensah-Offei is permitted more vocally expressive anguish, though her whole body is defensively hunched with the anxiety of one no longer at home in her world, even with the man she loves most. “As Far As I Can Walk” is most affecting in its circuitous, open-ended irresolution — all too true to the refugee experience — even as it adopts the closed form of a hero’s journey.