The Family: An extraordinary protagonist in even more extraordinary circumstances
by Vladan Petkovic
- Rok Biček's magnum opus is an uncompromising piece of cinéma vérité that was ten years in the making
Slovenian filmmaker Rok Biček scored a hit with his first feature film, the docudrama Class Enemy [+see also:
interview: Rok Biček
interview: Rok Bicek
interview: Rok Bicek
film profile], which world-premiered in the Venice Critics’ Week in 2013, winning the FEDEORA Award, and went on to garner another 20 prizes as well as a LUX Prize nomination. It was released in France, Switzerland, Italy and Austria.
Now, Biček is back with a 104-minute documentary that he spent ten years making, The Family [+see also:
film profile], which world-premiered and triumphed in Locarno's Critics’ Week, and recently won the Vesna Award for Best Slovenian Feature-length Film at the Festival of Slovenian Film in Portorose (see the news).
Actually, The Family tells the story of three families, following the main protagonist, Matej, from his mid-teens until his mid-twenties. As the film opens, we witness Matej's girlfriend Barbara giving birth to their daughter, Nia. But their relationship soon collapses, and Matej moves out of the house they share with Barbara's father, Robi. Biček gives us zero exposition, and no clues are there to specify locations or time, so the early, powerful scenes of the birth in close up, Matej's argument with Barbara, and his farewell with Robi toss us back and forth between emotions the origins of which we are not sure we understand.
The film then reverts to Matej's teens and the time he lived with his parents, and we realise that his father, mother and brother all have intellectual disabilities. Through an extended scene with a social worker, we learn that, unlike them, Matej only has some behavioural and learning problems.
When Biček drops us back into a later timeline, Matej has a new girlfriend who is only 14 and who lives with her mum, who seems to be fine with her daughter dating a 22-year-old. In addition to the new relationship – and the third family for Matej – a custody battle with Barbara over Nia becomes our hero's main focus.
Matej is one of a kind, a charismatic, intelligent and headstrong, if sometimes emotionally confused, young man, who seems to have accidentally dropped out of nowhere into his actual family. This is perhaps why his impulse to connect with other families is so strong, and as it fails, he shows a clear nihilistic streak, applying for a vasectomy while Barbara falls pregnant again with her new boyfriend.
The Family is an observational documentary consisting entirely of one-shot sequences, allowed by Biček and co-editor Yulia Roschina to run their course where needed in order to strike the right emotional note, which, on occasion, can feel too long for the viewer, but which always turns out to be justified by the end result. This immediately strips away any sentimentality and, along with the meagre living conditions depicted on the visual side, and the bureaucratic complications of the social and health services on the narrative one, inevitably recalls the power of the strongest films of the Romanian New Wave, such as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [+see also:
interview: Cristian Mungiu
interview: Oleg Mutu
film profile]. It is a difficult film to watch and gives the viewer so much to think about, and so many emotions to try to identify, that the cumulative experience is exhausting but, eventually, more than gratifying.
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