Emigration, nostalgia, and a Croatian groundhog day: “The Uncle” at the goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film3 min read
In Andrija Mardešić and David Kapac’s debut feature, the past haunts the present, and nothing is truly as it seems.
On the surface, The Uncle reads like your standard Christmas film. A family of three — mother, father, and son — are preparing dinner and decorating the house for the holiday. On the way is an uncle, travelling all the way from Germany for the occasion and bringing with him gifts from the West. Often, the holiday season brings out stress among family members; throw in a relative from abroad and voila, you have the perfect recipe for a tension-ridden chamber thriller. However, for their first feature film, Croatian filmmakers Andrija Mardešić and David Kapac decided to go one step further.
Throughout the first 20 minutes of the film, subtle anachronisms hint that things are not all as they seem. For one, the film’s colour palette is made up of rich, warm tones, bringing to mind the aura of late summer, not the more chilly blues one would expect from a classic Croatian winter. Another indication is the distinctly raw turkey, which the uncle praises as perfectly cooked before cutting and serving it to the rest of the family. Then, there is the clearly adult son who takes on a childish persona whenever the uncle is around, eating gummy candies by the handful and racing around the house with his toy gun.
Soon enough, it is revealed “Christmas” is an everyday occasion, whereby the uncle is the writer and director of all that occurs. Day after day, the family repeats the celebration in a constant attempt to recreate the “perfect” Christmas — if not, their daughter will “never return from Germany,” as the uncle puts it. It is never made clear how many times the family has lived like this, but it is evident that by the time of the film’s setting, things are hitting their breaking point. What emerges is a classic slow-burn film full of suspense, told in a style reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos.
Though the focus of the film is on the elements of physical and psychological abuses that occur within the family unit, Mardešić and Kapac also bring in Yugoslav nostalgia by having the uncle set his scene in the late-1980s to early-1990s. Indeed, one way to see the film is as a hazy analysis of Yugoslav emigration to West Germany, and the facets of Croatian nationalism that emerged during this time. For example, throughout the film, the uncle forces various family members to sing the patriotic song “Vila Velebita” (Eng: “Fairy of Velebit”). It is significant that these nationalist feelings are harboured by an emigreé, who at the same time is trying to recreate his own socialist youth. In this way, the character of the uncle illustrates the complexities of identity in the region, and how one’s childhood experiences shape the rest of our lives, even if we may have escaped the original situation.
Mardešić and Kapac make good use of their cast, which features Goran Bogdan as the father; Ivana Roščić as the mother; Roko Sikavica as the son; and the excellent Predrag Miki Manojlović as the titular uncle. The film won a number of awards in the Balkan festival circuit, as well as Special Jury Mention at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival – Proxima Competition. As a debut feature, The Uncle succeeds as both a fun thriller, as well as a deeper analysis of family dynamics.