Antoni Konieczny’s Review on “The Hill Where the Lionesses Roar”

The Hill Where the Lionesses Roar (2021), dir. Luàna Bajrami

“It will wash away your bitterness,” Qe (Flaka Latifi) tells her friend Li (Era Balaj), insisting that she takes a sip of water. In Luàna Bajrami’s Kosovan drama, three young women wish to forge their own paths in a world seemingly bent on silencing their dreams. In this odyssey in a search for freedom and lives worth remembering, the 20-year-old writer and director sacrifices narrative complexity in favor of contemplative authenticity.

Qe, Li, and Jeta (Urate Shabani) are fearless but held back. Stifled or abused by their relatives and community, the girls want out from a backwater village where days blend together and a glass bottle-smashing rock throw is a day’s highlight. An overwhelming stagnancy penetrating the frame turns the summer scenery, a common backdrop for coming-of-age stories, on its head: instead of a carefree idyll, there is a frustrating lethargy; instead of tranquility, a growing rage.

Bajrami subtly manages her exposition. Placing the girls within a desolate space, austere wide shots complement close-ups to let the viewer in on the unaffectedness of the girls’ friendship, one in need of no words, adequately expressed by the sole means of the image. They must have known and trusted each other since the beginning of time, perhaps even earlier than that. There is a brutality to their world, however, manifested in the threat of sexual violence, and more implicitly, in the inescapable nature of their stagnant reality.

The girls’ withdrawn portrayals correspond well to the suffocating scenery, but they take their toll on the protagonists’ development. The trio’s communal on-screen presence turns cannibalistic as none of the women receives enough characterisation nor breathing space to distinguish herself. One can take a similar issue with Zem (Andi Bajgora), Jeta’s boyfriend. Rather than a character in his own right, he serves to provide insight into the trio’s dynamics – they do not perceive this foreign body as a threat, but seamlessly incorporate it, emphasising the women’s mutual trust. The strategy prevents the viewer from appreciating the character as anything more than a tool, but at the same time, it removes what could potentially distract from the women at the heart of the film.

The eventual act of rebellion in the form of a robbery spree – rushed and unconcluded – does not achieve the heights of the slice-of-life approach that preceded it. Over-reliant on standard iconography and tropes, starting with jump-cut-ridden heist montages and ending with a cleansing lake bath, the final act disappointedly distances itself from the opening’s ambiguity, minimalism, and poetry, while also delivering little in the way of closure. On the other hand, Bajrami is consistent in her uninterrupted focus on the girls; they are the story’s foundation, and the narrative never makes the mistake of moving away from them.

As a group, the film’s leads are captivating, yet as individuals, unconvincingly fleshed out and woven into the coming-of-age genre’s conventionalities, they can prove forgettable. If the story did not take a deep enough breath before its roar, though, at the very least it made the quiet anticipation worthwhile.

Antoni Konieczny
Edited by Amber Wilkinson