Against the Refusal of Life

in Festival of East European Cinema, Cottbus

by Tina Waldeck

Safe Place (Sigurno mjesto, 2022) by Juraj Lerotić is the director’s feature debut. It deservedly won the main prize at the 32nd FilmFestival Cottbus and was the thoughtful-charming submission from Croatia for the 95th Academy Awards in the Selection Best International Film 2023.

The film deals with the understanding of a deep emotional mourning process. We see Damir (Goran Marković) who, while on the phone to his brother Bruno (Juraj Lerotić), attempts suicide in his flat in Zagreb. Although time continues to pass normally for all other marginal characters, suddenly everything has to happen quickly in this particular family. Bruno deeply feels the transience of life, and the question arises: How should things continue from here?

The action takes place in just one day. It is based on true events the director experienced with his own brother. While coping with his grief, Lerotić wrote the screenplay, and he also plays the main character himself, despite never having acted before. In this way, it is less of a performance: He is present as himself, in a pure existence. As a narrator, as a brother and friend, as a runner and organizer for the family. Not a self-staging hero, but the essential support and bearer of compassion for his beloved brother. Powerless, at a loss, and yet tirelessly there for him. He is a human being, who cannot control everything, even if he would like to.

The film is aesthetically reduced and arranged in an extremely empathic way, with specific details to credibly transfer the family trauma. The colour moods are oppressive, forlorn and they dye the whole scenery – which are the true scenes of the past events. The overlays of the camera view show the search for a solution in the fateful course of close contact with death. The desperation doesn’t stop, but calms down, stabilizes temporarily and then breaks out again and again, completely unpredictable.

Marković’s Damir has a presence in the timeline that determines every motivation, triggers all emotions and sets everything in motion, yet he remains absent in his existence and mysterious in his own motives. The desperation never culminates in sentimentality, because it is always equipped with down-to-earth credibility and filigree transparency of troubled moods. In the reflections, the facial expressions of brother and brother overlap in the camera: Connected and yet separated by panes of fragile glass. In the visible stagnation, it’s no longer possible to find access to each other. We are left with a sense of a suspicious emptiness, framed by weightless photography that survived as a haunting fragment of long-lost happiness.

Life gets quickly out of control and leaves a sense of hopelessness behind. It is often not clear whether help would really have been available or where Damir’s suicidal journey would have led to otherwise. In the course of the film, the contours of inner loneliness and the outside struggle dissolve more and more. A transience that could briefly be stopped, delayed, and yet has long since taken place. Life is superimposed on death: What remains is bewilderment and a strongly triggered empathy, with the play of grief, which is felt honestly, sincerely and is thereby significantly strengthened. For such a believable story, it seems to be necessary to have experienced the drastically incisive reality of depression in life – for a deep cinematic sense towards life.

Tina Waldeck
Edited by Pamela Jahn