Albanian ‘Amnesty’ at the Berlinale: A Quiet Drama

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Feb 11th, 2011

Life is not easy for Elsa: her husband is in prison for gambling debts, she has just lost her job at the factory, she has two young sons to look after, and a elderly little father-in-law who lives with them, trying to act as patriarch. In order to bring Albania’s policies in line with the EU’s, a new law is introduced allowing monthly conjugal visits. Elsa dutifully starts making regular minibus trips to the capital, Tirana. While the sex is perfunctory, the friends she meets at the prison offer her hope. There is the fellow visitor who asks her to be a witness for her wedding at the prison: when Elsa misses the bus home, the bride instantly takes her in for the night. The other witness at the wedding, Shpetim, also pays conjugal visits to his wife at the prison. He and Elsa talk a little each month, and it seems possible that they could offer each other the affection and consolation which both are sorely missing in their lives. At least until an amnesty unexpectedly sets their partners free…

Even in this, his first feature film, director Bujar Alimani demonstrates an assured hand, timing all his shots with precision so that they are lyrical and contemplative rather than slow or dull. They draw the viewer in to what is a relatively simple narrative, but one in which every scene holds great potential for new developments. Imagine the human interest of a kitchen-sink soap opera, with its families, relationships and everyday life among the working classes: Amnesty (Amnistia) offers similar dramatic situations, but they take place with greater tranquillity, and are more moving as a result. Emotions don’t have to be expressed by shouting: they can be expressed just as strongly with a subtle facial expression or a small gesture. It is the actors who play Elsa and Shpetim who have the most opportunity to showcase their talents in this area, while Alimani makes the surprising and effective decision never to show the faces of their spouses, as if to reflect their lack of connection. Special mention must go to the actress who plays the bride: Mirela Naska made her recent debut in Serbian director Goran Paskaljević’s Medeni mesec (Honeymoons, 2009), in a similar role as a young bride. Her air of sweetness and vulnerability make her particularly suited for such characters, and her face alone would have made her a real charmer in the days of silent cinema.

The realism of Amnesty is not only of dramatic interest: this film offers the audience a slice of life in Albania. Although I have never been there, I can imagine that this is what life must be like for many: pock-marked pavements; small flats packing in more than two to a bed; simple kitchens with little money to stock the cupboards. Worst of all, there is no real prospect of better times ahead: the film opens with Elsa collecting her redundancy money from the textile factory, which has been bought by a foreigner who wants to update the machinery. The day when EU membership will bring prosperity still seems far off. Effectively, it is this same desperation that put the characters’ spouses in prison, making them turn to loans, gambling, or out-and-out fraud in order to find the money to survive, or attempt to improve their situation. Even the young bride’s husband is effectively in prison for money: he was driven to a crime of passion when the bride’s parents tried to marry her off to a rich compatriot living in Italy.

Alimani’s skill as a director ensures that the oppressiveness of the situation does not create a bleak cinematic experience for the audience. Viewers will sympathise with the characters, and so share their anxieties and sorrows, but they also get to share their quiet enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures: Elsa’s tender relationship with her children; sharing a drink in a cafe; sharing stories with a friend; or treating your colleagues to a pastry. The film is realistic in that there are good times to balance the bad, and people find the elements of comfort they can even in the harshest realities.

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