Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 27, 2018 2:23 pm 
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Blerta Zeqiri's film is very sad but its early action is lively and fluid. You might think the Polish good-time miniaturist Michal Marczak's 2016 All These Sleepless Nights was a stylistic influence. Things move so smoothly it's tricky to separate present moments from flashbacks. But this isn't one long party like Marczak's dreamy, hypnotic film (for a while I kept watching snatches of it every day). On the contrary, in The Marriage, Bekim (Alban Ukaj), who owns a bar, is moving toward a life sentence, marriage to Antta (Adriana Matoshi). They seem happy enough; but Bekim is play-acting.

Bekim is muscular, masculine, dashing, and soulful. He wins us over in the first frames when he cuddles with a handsome dog and feeds it scraps of meat. They are waiting to learn if Anita's parent's bones have been found this time, in the latest arrival from Kosovo, from the war. It's been fifteen years and she's still waiting for closure. They talk about how this hangs over them, particularly over Anita, as they drive back to the bar Bekim owns.

When they get there they find Nol (Genc Salihu) arrived from France, where he's been living for a couple of years, and doing well. Clearly he and Bekim are best friends; but Anita knows nothing about him. The film resorts to a cruel irony. Nol is sad and preoccupied, says he's lost the love of his life. Anita remonstrates vociferously. No, no, you must not let that happen, she says. You must fight to get her back. What she does not know is that Nol's great love is Bekim. The three pour down the shots, getting drunk together, the truth hanging between the two men, the woman oblivious.

Nol has dash himself of an artier kind, with long hair and sharp features. Salihu, a well-known musician in Albania, shows he has fine thespian skills as well, though Ukaj has the more complex role, a performance within a performance.

The two men are typecast. That is, Nol gets to be the authentic one. However, he does not reveal his feelings for Bekim to Anita or to anyone else, and the two men seem to have hidden their passionate affair from the rest of the world till Nol left for France. Nol acknowledges his feelings to himself and to Bekim, but Bekim plays a false role to everyone except in secret. He is ready, to please his mother, to please the world, to have a conventional life, to deny that Nol is the love of his life as well. He even behaves in a homophobic manner, telling men who want to stage a LGBT party at his bar that that will never happen, as if gayness were anathema to him. Well, he was not faking it with the dog he fed the meat scraps to.

With Nol, Bekim and Anita together, they all get very drunk. This leads to a fight between Bekim and Anita in a car, where she is so angry she asks to be let out, and he winds up leaving her by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. This leads to a separation for a while, when Bekim doesn't even call Anita, and it's a hint to Anita at least that when he gets drunk, Bekim may hurt her. But he appears eventually with a big bunch of flowers, promising never to get so drunk again, and they make up - which is just as well, since their wedding was scheduled when the film begins, and she was talking to him about a choice of kitchen designs.

On the whole, this is an admirably succinct film, and wastes no moments. But its flashbacks are confusing, and its minute jump cuts are dubious. One flashback shows Nol and Bekim performing a Gershwin song together, Nol on the guitar, Bekim doing a very passable Louis Armstrong vocal impersonation, in English. It's gratuitous, but fun.

The crucial scene, powerful because it is true and sad, comes when Nol is beaten up by a homophobic crowd in a big fight and Bekim comes to rescue him and they make love in a sequence that's not graphic by today's standards, but clear enough. It's evidence that he's the top, which makes Anita more concretely the usurper of his place with Bekim. But the next morning, things haven't changed. They have declared their undying love for each other. And Bekim is still getting married.

The ceremonial and climactic sequence is the wedding, where the bride and groom are up on a dias, together, yet somehow not. Bekim's red bow tie strikes a disconcerting note. He looks like a little boy, hair swept back and flattened down, his dimpled masculinity reduced, as if marriage robs him of his true manhood. And Nol comes, to Bekim's horror, for he cannot help but become wholly preoccupied with Nol when Nol gets very drunk.

Whatever happens, nothing is going to make any difference. If there were ever an anti-rom-com, this is it. There are no second chances. There is no hope, nothing to make the gay audience feel good. This fluid, original, well acted film is a reminder that though there may be gay rights, even in Albania (but not, there, any recognition of the rights of same-sex couples), in many places the closeted life is still alive and well.

The Marriage/Martesa , 97 mins., debuted at Talinn Black Nights Film Festival, Talinn, Estonia, 28 Nov. 2017, also showing at Cleveland and Transatlantyk Film Festival in Łódź, Poland. It releases in theaters in Los Angeles and in VOD 7 Dec. 2018. It is the Albanian entry for Best Foreign Oscar for 2019.


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