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The Dawn (Zora)

This Croatian dystopia set in a small village will haunt audiences long after its last image – from the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


Set in the near future, a family has to decide whether to stay in the small rural Balkan village they’ve called their home, or like many of the other villagers, choose to leave. Aside from the communal tensions and the cryptic references of another group’s arrival that will bring trouble, the family themselves are divided. Husband Matija (Kresimir Mikic) and his wife Ika (Tihana Lazovic), are yet to overcome the grief of the loss of their son, who disappeared a long time ago. Against her wishes, he plans to sell their home and move with their two children Kaja (Lara Vladovic) and Nikola (Maks Kleoncic) to the city.

The Dawn is the second film in director Dalibor Matanić’s Sun trilogy, following High Sun (Zvizdan, 2015), that won a Jury Prize at Cannes, where it screened in the Un Certain Regard section. It spanned three love stories across three decades, with actors Lazovic and Goran Markovic appearing as different characters. This time around, the director is less playful with time, and he’s more concise, although the theme of inter-ethnic conflict and love remains intact.

This is a brooding film that nestles itself in communal and family anxieties, cultivating a tension that denies communication between its characters. The Dawn is the type of filmmaking that resists centralising themes and ideas, to the point that the aim becomes their development to communicate with the audience. Instead, Matanić clouds them in abstraction, in which moments of interaction between characters, a look or words exchanged, offers us deeper insight into his intent.

With a lack of interest in exposing his characters inner most thoughts and feelings, the filmmakers feeling is that we only need to have a sense, from which we can grow our connection with the family. He appreciates that if his characters are struggling to understand their thoughts and feelings, then he must honour this. He leans us towards comprehending these emotions and not explaining them to us, or helping us to understand.

We watch as they sink in the quicksand, unable to be still. Their emotional angst places them in peril, whether it’s a literal death, or a metaphysical one – the break up of the family, or deepening of tensions that threatens to end this chapter of their lives, and spark the uncertainty of a new one.

There’s a side to these characters that remains private, contrasting to the opening images of the naked Ika. Her breasts are bared not only to her husband who’s offscreen, but to the camera which is our eye. We’re not the only ones who watch their emotionally intense sexual intercourse – Kaja and Nikola watch through the slit of the open door. A tear has left a streak below Ika’s eye, and we realise their sexual act is not a simple expression of lust or love, but is borne out of a shared pain. What’s striking about this film is that the characters are never truly naked because they’re not emotionally laid bare. The director challenges nakedness as a physical concept, and if we cannot understand someone’s feelings, then does witnessing them perform intimate acts render them nude?

Matanić appears to have little interest in definitive ideas, and he either abandons the black and the white meaning for the shades of grey, or juxtaposes one thing with another, such as the family home falling apart, and the neighbour’s house under construction. In one scene this is symbolised by night and dawn – the darkness of the grieving couple and their contentious marriage, opposite the sun rising on a new beginning.

The Dawn has the feel of a nightmare, constructed around the concept of an imaginative fantasy that would form a dystopian dream. Underpinning this nightmarish impression, the cinematographic framing of the characters and the observations of the space conveys the horresque.

We could be forgiven for thinking the spatial is haunted by their memories of their son who went missing, and who they continue to search for. Unlike Matija who is willing to leave the country for the city, the son’s disappearance ties Ika to the place. Emotion and space are intertwined, the setting an emotional graveyard. But it’s also haunted by a feeling less personal, of the human propensity for violence and inter-ethnic conflict that overshadows the couple’s personal trauma.

Matanić’s film is a dystopian vision, not of totalitarianism, but of the divides between people who cannot or will not be healed. By its close, The Dawn offers no answers and amidst this uncertainty begins a haunting experience that will continue long after the last image.

The Dawn has just had its premiere at the 24th PÖFF Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, where it’s showing in the Official Competition.

By Paul Risker - 29-11-2020

While technically an English-based film critic and interviewer, Paul shows his political disgruntlement towards his homeland by identifying instead as a European writer. You’ll often find him agree...

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