Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

F I L M   R E V I E W
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Category: Foreign Film

© 2004
Directed by Ivo Trajkov
93 minutes


AFTER MILCHO Manchevski's 1994 film Before the Rain earned Macedonia its first-ever Oscar nomination, there was considerable talk about a "burgeoning" Macedonian film industry. Those forecasts proved unfounded after Manchevski, who had studied and worked almost exclusively in the United States prior to that time, returned to Hollywood, leaving a void which no other native Macedonian filmmakers seemed able or willing to fill. Finally, a decade later, the former Yugoslavian republic appears perched to make its mark once again, and this time with a certain degree of permanence. Though not a great film by any stretch, director Ivo Trajkov's stylized, ambitious The Great Water at least aims for greatness, taking the kinds of risks one typically expects of more seasoned filmmakers from more entrenched film industries. Drawing its inspiration from a variety of Eastern European influences—particularly Czech and Polish—The Great Water blends poetic realism with Eastern European magical realism to produce a story thick enough with emotion and symbolism to carry it through the spots where the narrative is less than fully realized.

In the present-day prologue, an aging politician named Lem Nikodinoski (Meto Jovanovski) is rushed to a hospital emergency room, the trauma triggering flashback recollections of his childhood in a post-World War II orphanage. There, the young Lem (Saso Kekenovski) is seen as a gaunt, frail 12-year-old, barely able to withstand the punishing "reeducation" regimen of what is little more than a communist labor camp for kids. Attempts to rid the children of age-old religious belief and cultural superstitions are dealt a severe setback, however, with the arrival of a mysterious new boy named Isak (played with stunning charisma by actress Maja Stankovska). Rumors of demonic parentage spread like wildfire, turning Isak into an instant celebrity and instilling fear and apprehension even in the supposedly secularized adults who run the place. The other children keep an understandable distance, but Lem is strangely drawn to the fellow outcast, seeking out and, at great pains, eventually securing Isak's trust and friendship. But their bond produces more than mutual support as Isak is increasingly able to draw upon supernatural abilities to change the balance of power in the camp.

If anything, Trajkov's direction is over-eager, injecting more energy and enthusiasm into each frame than the movie as a whole can really sustain. Though individual scenes work beautifully, the film never quite finds the right tonal balance; the supernaturalism too often feels like a distraction or an afterthought, detouring the more realistic portions from swelling to their full dramatic potential. It's as if Trajkov is trying to emulate the work of Bosnian director Emir Kusturica by way of material better suited to Poland's Andrzej Wajda.

Despite its shortcomings, the film excels in two key respects—performance and production value. Kekenovski and the remarkable Stankovska, who offers no clues as to her real gender, are nothing short of magical. With faces full of character and the weight of life, they almost seem ripped from some kind of neorealist past. Their combined dialogue could probably fit on the back of a business card, yet one emerges feeling an almost spiritual oneness with them. If Trajkov's skills with actors don't quite translate into the screenwriting department, they are more than realized from a technical standpoint—in all key respects, The Great Water looks and sounds as good as anything handled by the very best Hollywood artisans and technicians, sometimes even better. If only its story were up to snuff with the great European films it seeks to emulate, then The Great Water could have had it all.



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