Ognjen Svilicic’s These Are the Rules (2014) is a modest work of quiet desperation, but it’s obvious restraint and slow unwinding has a powerful, unsettling and ultimately moving effect. Middle-aged bus driver Ivo (Emir Hadžihafizbegović) lives with his wife Maja (Jasna Žalica) in a tidy, if dreary high rise apartment. It is a life of routine where something always need to be done: shoes by the door, door handles to be fixed, a new battery for the car. Their relationship is based on low level bickering, which – it becomes apparent – is actually another species of affection, watching TV and eating together. One morning their 17-year-old son, Tomica (Hrvoje Vladisavljevic), comes in having spent the night out.
Ivo goes to work and thinks nothing of it, and it is only later that evening when Tomica finally emerges that they see he has been badly beaten. His father takes him to the hospital, although they are careful to say that he fell in order to avoid contact with the police. It is the first sign that there are rules both written and unwritten which dictate how to navigate the state. He is x-rayed, patched up and given the all clear, but once home Tomica collapses in the bathroom and it turns out that his condition is more serious. Ivo and Maja are utterly unprepared. The diffidence to authority is so inbred that Ivo does not know if he should run a red light as they chase the ambulance taking their son back to hospital. Likewise, they’re unable to confront the doctors and nurses. “I asked them politely but they still won’t say,” Ivo complains.
Maja is angry that the first doctor clearly missed something that she can see on the x-ray, but their anger is held in, even as they begin to comprehend the seriousness of their son’s condition. They have more reason to become angry when their son’s girlfriend Tea (Veronika Mach) shows them a video of the attack, which is brutal and apparently unprovoked – not the harmless fight that Tomica has described. The police do not exactly leap into action when given the evidence – they also know the name of their son’s attacker – and impatiently explain that the video is inadmissible and that there are “different procedures for minors”. Indeed, Maja and Ivo are eyed with suspicion for not following the correct procedures and giving the police some unwanted paperwork to do.
Ivo has a moment where he realises how little he knows his son – he didn’t even know he had a girlfriend – but there’s no time for melodramatic clichés in Svilicic’s These Are the Rules. Ivo and Maja have obeyed the rules, but life has not and the wry humour of their ordinariness gives way to something like dignity. Their love for their son and for each other is expressed in gestures rather than words: Maja’s doting and Ivo’s frank admiration of Tomica. Even when Ivo decides that he will take the law into his own hands, Ivo behaves totally in character, quietly plodding after his designated target.
The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.