Fillmofil.ba proudly represents the works of young critics done in program Talents Sarajevo of 26th Sarajevo Film Festival with participation of Goethe-Institute Sarajevo
Written by: Tamara Tica
According to one of literature’s most famous opening lines, “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” However, according to Swiss director Andrea Štaka, family happiness is often inversely proportional to the happiness of the mother figure. Returning to Sarajevo Film Festival after her triumph with FRAULEIN / DAS FRÄULEIN (2006), she brings the Locarno winning team of Marija Škaričić and Mirjana Karanović, as well as ideas about womanhood in the context marriage – rarely explored in Balkan cinema.
The titular Mare (Škaričić) lives by the Dubrovnik airport with her husband and three children, none of whom remembers to feed their cat. Mare has no privacy, seemingly slim career prospects, and no life outside the home. What she does have, however, is a distinctly vivacious attitude towards life, and the wit of a woman who does not quite fit in with her environment. Mare’s abilities or lack of ambition are clearly not what is hindering her career. This has more to do with leaving her job in Switzerland in order to return to Croatia, as her father says, to stay “on the right path,” and marry Đuro (Goran Navojec), “a funny guy with pretty eyes,” who, like many funny guys, does not think it is a good idea for his wife to work outside of home.
Most films about housewives often fail to acknowledge the economic realities of what it means to be a homemaker. In some parts of the world, Mare’s included, foregoing employment opportunities is an act of financial irresponsibility that leaves the bread-winning partner with significantly more power in the relationship. A few miles away from one of Europe’s most coveted tourist spots lives the working class, and Štaka is careful not to show any luxurious beaches or picture-perfect tourist getaways. Their absence makes them an even more powerful presence – there is a lingering feeling of longing for things unreachable for a family that struggles financially. In her film, Štaka exposes a fundamental attitude about marriage, partnership, and gender roles. Balkan parenthood is synonymous with martyrdom, and even more frequently, motherhood, relying on one parent to bear the larger emotional weight of raising children.
Maybe this is why Mare is in every scene of the film, and the camera follows her uncomfortably closely, exemplifying the claustrophobia of the family home she is often left alone to take care of. This is evocative of works by Croatian director Hana Jušić – in QUIT STARING AT MY PLATE / NE GLEDAJ MI U PIJAT (2016), the shared home only serves to provide physical constraints of the mental and the emotional prison that is family. In MARE, things are not so bleak – this is a reasonably happy family, and Mare’s dissatisfaction is understood intuitively through Škaričić’s facial expression and body language, rather than emotional outbursts or dramatic declarations. Mare is a good mother who loves her family. This is an undeniable truth. It is also true that Balkan womanhood is so closely intertwined with motherhood that it can be impossible to determine where one stops and the other begins. A “decent” woman is not selfish or demanding, let alone difficult, she does not openly enjoy sex, or actively pursue it. A decent woman definitely does not cheat on her husband.
Early in the film, Piotr (Mateusz Kosciukiewicz), a Polish contractor with a disarming smile, moves into the neighborhood, and the outcome is fairly easy to predict. Firmly rooted in the tradition of chick-lit’s wish-fulfillment fantasies and hyper aware of what makes it so beloved, Štaka refuses to mock housewives, or the elaborate fantasies they contrive. In them, dreamy, often foreign men come in to disrupt the mundanity of women’s lives, the proverbial deus ex machina, being more akin to a sex god. Piotr not only fixes house appliances, he also helps with cooking, and brings a sexual novelty and excitement, often lacking in a long marriage. In MARE, there is never a sly wink to the audience, no one is ridiculed or judged, which is close to revelatory when it comes to the often pitying, and borderline condescending cinematic depictions of homemakers. While the men here are never one-dimensional, neither villainized, nor idealized, the protagonist is a woman whose journey consists fully of regaining control of her own narrative. MARE is defiant towards the Western literary canon, that is adamantly punitive and dismissive towards the “straying” woman. Instead, this is an earnest reappraisal of a much maligned trope, and a brave dismantling of the idea of the admirable housewife, through selfishly reclaiming the female sexuality in a world (or at least in a Balkan setting) that still considers it transgressive.
MARE is a sensitive, carefully calibrated and compassionate story about both the financial and emotional economics of family, and a woman attempting to gain the upper hand in a marriage that has long persisted mainly thanks to her caving to her husband’s wishes. As Ana Prada sings in Spanish “ I’m bad, / Mother of all sin, / Bitch, evil bitch…” in a surprisingly efficient music sequence of the film, Mare rejects society’s expectations of women, especially mothers, in a quietly defiant way that resonates more deeply with each moment of retrospection. She is no longer a “decent” woman, and because of that, she is free.