The distant memory of former glories fuels the tragicomedy of Ivan Ostrochovský’s fiction feature debut, Koza (2015). The title is the Slovak for ‘goat’ and was the nickname of protagonist Peter Baláž (himself), a boxer who represented his country at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. A pretty emotionally distant affair, Koza in some ways plays as though it’s directly at the cross-section of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and Danis Tanovic’s An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker – with its loose premise concerning the financial woes of a Romany outcast – though it lacks the redemptive arc of the former, or the social confrontation of the latter.
In fact, Ostrochovský steers decidedly clear of engaging with the issues faced by the Roma population in Slovakia in the way that other recent dramas like Tanovic’s or Filip Marczewski’s Shameless tried to. Opening scenes call to mind Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant as Peter trudges to a scrapyard trying earn ends meat after a day picking iron, but this film has none of the fable-like quality of that film. This is painstaking realism, merging seamlessly with documentary and lensed by non-fiction cinematographer Martin Kollár who observes the action in static, long shots. Even once the narrative returns the ring he keeps his distance, resisting the thrill of the fight for the implicit sadness of its conclusion.
Peter has been out of the ring for some time and although he continues to train, is hardly in the finest of fettle. In a knowing play on the conventions of social realist cinema of Eastern Europe, an abortion proves the motivation for his return to the game – his wife says a second child is out of the question, but termination is expensive. So, under the greedy gaze of his corrupt ‘manager’ Zvonko (Zvonko Lakcevic) he sets off on a van ride to the seedier fringes of the boxing world in the hope of raising the requisite cash. Peter’s optimism – possibly elevated by what may well be residual brain damage from his earlier career – leads to much exploitation, but even when the doctor’s tell him he cannot go on, he continues to. Despite not being a professional actor, Baláž manages to imbue this incarnation of himself with a wide-eyed and empathetic naivety that does give the audience some connection even if it’s not expressly proffered by the filmmaking. His insistence on always wearing the tracksuit from his Olympic endeavours twenty years earlier (where a little research reveals he was comprehensively beaten in the first round) evokes further sympathy. That Koza is regularly punctuated with humorous – or awkward – moments, leavens what may otherwise have been too a difficult watch. Instead, Ostrochovský sits back and allows this slight tale to progress with natural comedy and undeniable pathos.
The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.