Absent Fathers

in 79th Venice International Film Festival - Biennale di Venezia

by Ieva Sukyté

In the sidebar programmes of the Venice International Film Festival, Theo Montoya’s Anhell69, Antonio Lukich’s Luxembourg, Luxembourg, and Damian Kocur’s Bread and Salt (Chleb i sól) all share one thing – the absence of fathers. Whether these stories come from Medellín in Colombia or small towns in Ukraine or Poland, their films tackle issues like masculinity, patriarchy, adolescence and trauma, through the figure of a missing father.  

Some of these fathers died in gang shootings, or were sentenced to jail, or simply chose to leave their families and young boys behind. Several of these films draw from deeply personal experiences, with these young filmmakers reflecting on their upbringing and traumas – some use humour, while others opt for a darker tone.

Theo Montoya’s first feature, Anhell69, premiered in the Critics’ Week programme, with the Colombian director casting his queer friends for the film. However, 21-year-old Camilo Najar, who was cast as the main protagonist, died just one week after being cast. Set in Medellín, once the most dangerous city in the world due to urban wars between drug cartels, the footprints of the city’s dark past are still evident. As the narrative progresses, viewers quickly realise that Najar’s death is a harbinger for many others in the film – all moving towards a seemingly inescapable fate. Through interviews, the director’s friends share pessimistic responses to questions about their past and their future.

All of Montoya’s subjects share that they were only raised by their mothers. The film suggests that many men in Colombia have faced violent deaths and that for queer men, the danger increases exponentially in their highly conservative society. Montoya’s queer friends dream of escaping Medellín and the city’s cycles of death, marginalisation and violence, but most realise that opportunities to do so are slim. With repeated scenes of a dead man’s body in a casket winding through the streets of Medellín, Montoya emphasises the long shadow of death that haunts the city.

Screened in the Orizzonti competition, Lukich’s Luxembourg, Luxembourg and Kocur’s Bread and Salt are both set in Eastern European countries – Ukraine and Poland. Both countries suffered from communist regimes that led to a steep rise in gangs and criminal activities in the early 1990s. Growing up in the countryside of Lithuania, I witnessed young boys following their fathers’ footsteps and turning into criminals; fights during school breaks were common.

In Bread and Salt, Tymek is a pianist studying in Warsaw but goes back for the summer to his native small town, where he now feels alienated. His friends and his younger brother Jacek – who did not get into the music academy – are still living the same life. Tymek and Jacek grew up without a father, and one conversation they have about their missing father is suffused with a quiet pain and agony. Though they might look tough on the outside wearing tracksuits with buzzcut hairstyles, one of Jacek’s friends gives a monologue about his alcoholic father. He blames himself for telling his mother about his father’s addiction when he was younger, which led to more trouble.

Jacek, his girlfriend and friends like to gather at a local kebab place, run by two Muslim foreigners. There is an underlying racial tension in the film, which later explodes into a violent act. Kocur’s film highlights how minor acts of aggression and teasing can all accumulate into a deeply tragic event.

In Lukich’s Luxembourg, Luxembourg, twin brothers Kolya and Vasya are born to a Serbian gangster in a small Ukrainian town called Lubny. We get a glimpse of their father in the opening sequence, shot in a “mafia film” style; a key feature is a string of tattoos on his hand. Fast forward, the brothers are now adults and have not seen their father since they were six. Vasya works as a policeman while his twin brother Kolya drives a bus and deals marijuana. They lead very different lives – something that their mother endlessly berates Kolya for. Suddenly, they receive a call from an embassy saying their father has died in Luxembourg.

The twin brothers have contrasting views of their father: Vasya sees him as a criminal who left their family, while Kolya still idolises him, imagining that his father is living a luxurious life in Western Europe. Maybe that is what has stopped Kolya from fully growing up, who continues to act out against his mother and cause trouble in town.

Drawing from his own experience of only having few interactions with his father, director Lukich explores the mystery of the absent father through Luxembourg, Luxembourg. The unexpected choice of comedy allows Lukich to confront such a heavy subject in a refreshingly light-hearted manner, while never compromising on substance.

Ieva Šukytė
Edited by Sara Merican