Wednesday 31 March 2021

Barren land: "Zana"

It's possible some inattentive archivist will eventually muddle up this week's Zana with Lucrecia Martel's much-admired colonial drama Zama, but the two films are very different beasts. For starters, we're on the homefront here - a Kosovan village - and far closer to the present, watching the unease growing around an Albanian woman who's yet to fall pregnant. Director Antoneta Kastrati, co-writing with Casey Cooper Johnson, ramps up the disquiet via a series of signs and signifiers that seem to count double in this heavily superstitious, tradition-bound territory. An opening dream sequence finds Lume (Adriana Matoshi) leading a cow to water, only for it to end up butchered in a ditch; not long afterwards, she will find a spent shell casing in the grass of her own backyard. Our heroine may not be pregnant, but the film around her most definitely is: Kastrati surrounds these characters with bad juju, and leads us to expect the worst from more or less the off. Quickly, Zana raises the issue of whether Lume even wants to conceive, or if this is one of the expectations placed on her as wife to one of the community's sons. One look at her weak ingrate of a husband, and you could understand any reservations she might have about reproducing. But it's not as if this is the couple's first shot at becoming parents: we learn this fertility glitch only became a matter of concern in the wake of the Kosovan conflict, in which the pair's first child, a four-year-old daughter named Zana, was killed. That opening dream sequence is a daydream Lume has while sitting in the doctor's stirrups, and what follows is a rare example of a film asking the viewer to play psychologist and gynaecologist simultaneously. Is it the case that Lume is mentally - and thus physically - unable to move on? Or are there other, more malevolent external forces at work here?

While we compile our casenotes, Kastrati and Johnson sketch an illuminating portrait of village life: the wives making flatbreads and executing chickens for dinner (it could still be the 19th century, were it not for the recipes cribbed from YouTube), the endless gossip that serves as daily entertainment and talks up the heroine's plight. Yet Zana appears as influenced by genre filmmaking as by the prevailing norms of arthouse realism - and by the horror genre in particular. Characters pop up in unexpected places within the frame; we hear disconcerting wailing noises coming from offscreen; and those dream sequences become only more real, less easily distinguished from the everyday drama. (They also confirm that Lume is living very much in her head.) This odd but largely effective splicing of styles reaches its fullest expression when the couple venture into town to consult a healer of sorts: a figure straight out of Bergman, with his clipped beard and dark eyes, his initial diagnosis is that Lume has been possessed by a djinn. It seems likelier that this whole region is haunted, that any ghosts that require exorcising are those of the recent past. The sequences that position Lume in sundappled countryside - picking bouquets for the boudoir, playing football with her hubby and the local youngsters (as families do) - reminded me of the light in Shoah's concentration-camp visits: again, it seems unreal that the heavens should now look so favourably on a land that has known such suffering. Zana proceeds at the pace of its stricken, occasionally numb-seeming protagonist, and its ending (which owes a debt to one very prominent American horror text) arguably tips a bit too far in one direction. Yet it's steered by a very fine, almost exclusively internalised performance by Matoshi: there's lots going on here, even if it doesn't immediately rise to the surface.

Zana will be available to stream from Friday.

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