An Affectionate Kafkaesque Story

in 21st Sofia International Film Festival

by Boryana Mateeva

Requiem for Mrs. J. (Rekvijem za gospodu J., 2016, Serbia/ Bulgaria/ Macedonia) is a bitter-sweet existential drama, told with black humor and warmth. As Vuletic has aptly put it, his film is a “black comedy about a woman who wants to commit suicide but because of the corruption and bureaucracy in Serbia, cannot do even this. The film is also a family drama full with emotions and love. In certain sense, if we do not reach death, we cannot start to live again”.

With his second feature, director-scriptwriter Bojan Vuletic demonstrates his ability to mix and match his sharp realistic observations with psychological analysis, thus creating an allegorical image of the oppressive post-totalitarian reality in his homeland, which draws us into the absurdist battle of a deeply depressed woman with bureaucratic structures.

Jelena (in the superb interpretation of Mirjana Karanovic, best known for Kusturica’s When Father Was Away on Business (1989) and Underground (1995), and for Jasmila in Jasmila Žbanic’s Grbavica, 2006) is a recently widowed, middle-aged woman, with a suicidal obsession. Unemployed, denied the love and financial support of her husband, she lives with his old mother, her two daughters, and feels worthless and totally alienated. Her home is a mess, the younger girl swears like a trooper, the elder gets pregnant. Mrs. J. is planning to kill herself with her husband’s old family gun on the first anniversary of his death. During the week, leading up to this day, the director follows closely her tragically-comic preparations, which include having her picture engraved on the tombstone of her husband, along with the inscription of her name. Despite of her morbid thoughts, however, she cares strongly about her family, and decides to get a life insurance, which would help them financially after she is gone.

Unable to obtain the so much needed certificate from the enterprise where she has worked half of her life before being laid off – the enterprise has gone bankrupt– the poor woman embarks on a Kafkaesque journey through the labyrinth of a grotesque bureaucracy. It is no accident that her name is abbreviated as J. – an obvious reference to Joseph K. from The Trial. Her life has been difficult, but organizing her death seems to be even more complicated… Yet, the anticipated addition of a grandchild to her tumultuous family gives a new meaning to her life, and J. slowly begins to renounce her dark obsession. The uneasy return to normalcy is triggered by a surrealist vision of her past at the very moment she is on the edge of life and death. Depression is gone, and to everyone’s surprise, at the family gathering in honor of her husband’s death anniversary, Mrs. J., sings beautifully a popular folk song.

Prior to its participation in the 21 International Sofia Film Festival, Requiem for Mrs. J. was selected for the Berlinale Panorama’2017, and has received four prizes at the 45 th Belgrade Film Fest.

Its FIPRESCI award at ISFF strong competition was a highly deserved one. The film is a good example of coproduction synergy, which has avoided the usual compromises, and has instead favored the authorial vision and artistic expression. Combining skillfully various genre approaches, social criticism, existential and psychological insights, as well as audience consideration, Requiem for Mrs. J. challenges successfully the trappings of the so-called Euro- pudding. Its universal human message is delivered with thoughtful empathy not only for its characters, but also for its audience. And the audience responds in kind!

Edited by Christina Stojanova