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FILMS / REVIEWS Croatia / North Macedonia / Serbia

Review: The Voice

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- Ognjen Sviličić trains his piercing spotlight on the influence of the Catholic Church on Croatian society

Review: The Voice
Franko Jakovčević in The Voice

Croatian filmmaker Ognjen Sviličić, whose last directorial effort, These Are the Rules [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, screened in Venice’s Orizzonti in 2014, is known as one of the most prolific screenwriters in the region of the former Yugoslavia. With his new film, The Voice [+see also:
trailer
interview: Ognjen Sviličić
film profile
]
, which has just world-premiered in the Busan International Film Festival's World Cinema section, Sviličić (together with his co-writer, rising newcomer Marijana Verhoef) turns his piercing spotlight on the overbearing power of the Catholic Church and its multi-faceted influence on Croatian society.

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Our hero, 17-year-old Goran (Franko Jakovčević), is brought to a newly established Catholic boarding school by his mother, who is about to go to work on a cruise ship. His mum is impressed by the all-white, freshly painted, squeaky-clean institution on the outskirts of Split, Croatia's second largest city and the centre of the stubbornly and often aggressively patriarchal region of Dalmatia. A kitschy, neon-lit chapel donated by a believer from the diaspora dominates the ground floor and provides the audience with a glimpse of the local mentality.

The centre of the social life at the boarding school is its cafeteria, where we first get to meet Danijela (Bosnian-born actress Belma Salkunić), the thirty-something headmistress. Softly spoken but clearly authoritative, as shown immediately through her interaction with the employees, the woman presents the newbie to his schoolmates before starting the lunchtime prayer. All of the kids put their hands together and mumble the words, except for Goran.

The three boys at Goran's table, some of whom are also his roommates, notice this, and thus our protagonist's troubles commence. The peer pressure starts building, and the institutional pressure will soon be piled on, too, at the first rehearsal for a nativity play that the headmistress is preparing for an event the kids will share with the local scouts. Goran is cast as Joseph and declines to say his lines, calling the story "illogical" and "stupid".

The headmistress first sends Goran off to speak with the local priest, only for the boy to tell him, "There's no God," comparing this statement with the absence of his own father. Here we see that our hero is not a hardcore atheist; rather, he is a bright young man with no father figure and an absent mother, stubborn and quietly proud in a typically Dalmatian way. His constant refusal to pray with the others leads Danijela to make a very un-Christian move: she will not allow anyone to eat until Goran says his prayers.

This is where Sviličić lays bare the self-righteous and judgemental nature of a direct interpretation of the Catholic doctrine. However, the director is not being judgemental himself: The Voice is not a black-and-white story of religious oppression; rather, it is a clear image of a slice of a certain society. Some of the boys and girls are just pretending to be real believers because they want to make their lives easier with the authority figures, while others are really bent on changing Goran's irritating attitude – again, often for their own comfort, more than for Jesus's sake. And as the story progresses and culminates in an intense segment set during an island excursion, although the film's message is not ambiguous, what happens to Goran and how he and others process it certainly is.

Marinko Marikić's camera loyally follows the narrative, always waving or trembling slightly during the theological dialogue scenes, and firmly focusing on Goran in his interaction with other kids. With its sunny, bare-rock exteriors and white interiors, and with no musical score, The Voice could very well be taking place in a secretively troubled version of heaven.

The Voice is a co-production by Croatia's Maxima Film, North Macedonia's Skopje Film Studio and Serbia's Biberche. Paris-based WIDE Management has the international rights.

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