Poverty is a common subject in film, particularly in world cinema that stems from countries with difficult histories. Srdan Golubovic’s latest film, Father, drawns deeply from this well, focusing on the sense of disillusionment among the rural working classes and the poverty traps they become caught in.
Father begins with the shocking self-immolation of Biljana (Nada Sargin), who arrives at her husband’s old work, demanding unpaid severance fees and threatening to kill herself and her children. This leads to the children being taken into care, with her day-worker labourer husband Nikola (Goran Bogdan) scrabbling to prove that he is a capable father, and navigate the spider’s web of local government and the machinations of petty local bureaucrat Vasiljevic (Boris Isakovic). When all begins to fall apart against him, Nikola takes to the road, planning to walk the 300km to Belgrade and put a letter of appeal directly into the hands of the minister for social affairs.
Nikola is an interesting protagonist, particularly due to Bogdan’s portrayal. He’s a hulking, looming presence, larger and grimmer-looking than almost everyone else in the film. But he carries himself with a gentle quiet resolve that only makes the unfairness of the situation around him all the worse. His dogged insistence on peacefully sticking things through – both during his long pilgrimage and his unmoving silent protests – demonstrate far better than any speeches could his devotion to his family. This is contrasted with the many people he meets along his journey who each offer him their opinion, and often their own solutions, each of which is flawed in its own way.
Ultimately, the film is a castigating look at Serbian society, and particularly the deep divide between those who have and those who do not. Facets such as the open secret that Vasiljevic is skimming money from the government payments made to foster parents, and the constant stream of broken roads and abandoned buildings that Nikola passes or rests in through his journey, speaks to a country that has still not recovered from the horrors of its past.
Although worthy, the film is far from perfect. Tonally, it skips from wanting to seem like a farcical comedy, to a miserabilist drama with awkward and seemingly nonsensical turns. This is particularly evident with the protracted ending of the film, which dampens the seriousness of the preceding moments and drags on in an endearing but comedic way, seemingly unable to decide when to end or what it’s trying to say. Similarly, this pacing issue is present throughout, meaning many scenes are just a fraction or more too long.
And yet, despite all that, this is still a tale of never giving up in the face of all adversity. A parable on conviction and peaceful protest standing up against corruption, in the end Father manages to remain moving and hopeful.
Screening as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2021