In a pleasant Tirana apartment washed in pale morning light, a handsome young man is blearily preparing breakfast. In time he’s joined by his brother — the two are identical twins — and his brother’s girlfriend, who turns on the radio and leads the guys in an impromptu little dance before they settle around the table. The neatly observed morning routine that opens Albanian writer-director Gentian Koçi’s subtle but achingly emotive “A Cup of Coffee and New Shoes On” is a contented slice of life that would be unremarkable, except it is wordless and the dancing is slightly, indefinably awkward. And then the woman leaves for work, and a coffee mug smashes loudly to the floor, with neither brother reacting with so much as a blink.
Agim and Gëzim (Portuguese actors Rafael and Edgar Morais giving a beautifully synergistic pair of performances), brothers who run a woodworking business, have been deaf since birth. As a result, the close bond we might expect to exist between identical twins is closer still; with others, they communicate by signing and lip-reading but between the two of them a private language has evolved, which is more about the exchange of touch and gaze than words. Their unquestioned mutual interdependence has even survived the arrival of a third on the scene: Gëzim’s girlfriend Ana (a wonderfully warm Drita Kabashi), who in another movie would be a source of conflict or jealousy, has instead become an integral part of their lives, to some degree because of her acceptance of the primacy of the brotherly relationship for both of them.
For a time the drama that exists in Koçi’s sensitive screenplay comes from watching Gëzim and Agim maneuver gracefully through days that, despite their disability, are full and busy, whether at work amongst lathes and saws, or during beered-up card games with friends in smoky bars or on a brief trip back to their hometown, where old men toast these “sons of the village” with raki and bear hugs. But this harmony is disrupted when Agim begins to experience symptoms of vision impairment. For as long as he can, he conceals his panic from his brother and from Ana. But his sight degenerates further and the three eventually visit a doctor who reveals a grim prognosis: Agim is going to go irreversibly blind, over the cruelly short course of just a few months. Soon, he needs Gëzim or Ana’s assistance with even the most basic tasks: shaving, dressing, using the bathroom.
Agim’s despair at his increasing helplessness is worsened by the millstone weight of an additional secret he’s concealing from Gëzim. Meanwhile, Gëzim’s terror at his brother’s escalating depression is compounded by his incomprehension of why, for perhaps the first time, he and Agim are no longer emotionally in sync. That Koçi, in his second narrative feature after 2017’s “Daybreak,” communicates all this so clearly without lapsing into all-out sentimentality is a testament to the restraint of his style. The composure of Ilias Adamis unobtrusive cinematography and the calm, long-take rhythm of Myrto Karra’s editing lets the story gather power from moments and interactions that happen as naturally as breathing. Agim gets frustrated as he tries to learn braille. Gëzim watches Ana undress in their bedroom. Ana comforts Agim after an uncharacteristic outburst at her birthday party — a scene so small yet so infinitely compassionate that it may be the one that starts the tears flowing. They are unlikely to stop.
In particular, the reserved presentation allows the performances to flourish, and all three main actors are extraordinary. And the supporting roles, which are portrayed with wit and generosity, are eccentric and characterful, despite this being the kind of film where there is no villain, just good people trying to do their best for one another, even — or especially — when fate can deal some a shockingly unfair hand. However it’s the singular chemistry between the Morais brothers (who are not deaf, and learned Albanian sign language for their roles) that really elevates the film. Their striking physical resemblance somehow magnifies the tiniest shift in mood or the slightest loss of phase between them into a tectonic event. And having brief but intensely intimate access to the twins’ shared world is also what makes “A Cup of Coffee and New Shoes On” — which builds to a final scene that makes devastating sense of that offbeat title — such a rare find: a vividly explored real-life tragedy that, in describing a desperately moving, unconditionally loving brotherly connection, lifts your heart even while gently breaking it.