Review: Bota (Elezi & Logoreci, 2014) – SFIFF 2015

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

So far this year the San Francisco International Film Festival has brought me to Tehran, Hanoi, Chile, Zimbabwe, and now a backwater village in Albania. Bota (Albanian for “the world”) is the name of the cafe in which the three main characters work: Juli (Flonja Kodheli), the film’s down-to-earth protagonist; Beni (Artur Gorishti), her sleazy, well-to-do cousin and the cafe’s owner; and Nora (Fioralba Kryemadhi), Beni’s free-spirited mistress. The three are close: the drinking-on-the-rooftop-beneath-a-straw-umbrella type of close, the throw-each-other-in-the-way-of-lonely-men type of close, the keep-secrets-from-each-other-for-personal-gain type of close. The cafe itself could be said to be a fourth character. With a defunct red car on its flat roof and Juli’s beach-inspired art on its walls, its eclectic clientele and nighttime conversion to twinkling bar, Bota would be just as home in L.A.’s hipster Echo Park as in Nowheresville, Albania.

The story unfolds before a muted backdrop of recent political turmoil. Even those unfamiliar with Albania’s troubled history will feel a sense of unease in the opening scene, which shows Juli looking out the window at the workmen dredging the swamp, her great-aunt grumbling that “they’re wasting their time; there’s nothing to find.” Of course, we the viewers don’t learn what it is they’re looking for until much later, though presumably all the villagers know (though no one seems to care much). In the film, the drama of history is less real and less affecting than the characters’ personal dramas. Films about war, political persecution, demonstrations, and riots place history in the foreground, but most lives are not lived at the nexus of social change and human struggle. Most lives are lived while these events take place on the television or the radio, while they disrupt commutes or carry our parents across oceans to new continents. I like that this film is true to that reality, something I’ve also mentioned is one of my favorite qualities about Mad Men.

But History in the grand sense does finally catch up with Juli and her compatriots, erupting with sudden force to upend all of their lives. Bota, however, is not the type of film where miscreants get their comeuppance. It tries, after all, to be realistic. I am surprised by how grateful I am for that realism. It is conventional cinema’s antidote. No great romances threaten to sweep us away; instead we have, on the one hand, good old-fashioned lust and, on the other, a courteous longing, tinged with pragmatic regret. Nor are there emotionally satisfying outbursts of justified anger. The characters are true to themselves, true to their fates–not to some global notion of how one “ought” to act.

I like this film even more in retrospect than I did immediately after viewing. Bota is quiet without being boring, truthful without being dreary, nuanced without being baffling–a rare find these days. Even more impressive is that this movie is co-directors Iris Elezi and Thomas Logoreci‘s first feature-length narrative.