A Film a Week - Agape

originally published on Cineuropa
Branko Schmidt’s new film Agape is his third collaborative effort with screenwriter Ivo Balenović and serves as a conclusion to their informal social criticism trilogy, following Metastases (2009), set in a milieu of lowlifes, criminals, drug addicts and alcoholics echoing the recent war and Vegetarian Cannibal (2012), which deals with the interconnected worlds of organized crime, corrupt police and flawed health system. Revolving around the issues of church, paedophilia, God’s love and intolerance amongst the Croatian youth, Agape, which world-premiered at the recent Pula Film Festival, goes even deeper, acting as an exposé of a failed society, church practices and neglected youth and exploring the more philosophical and more universal topics of love, understanding and morality.

The story follows Miran (played by Goran Bogdan, an actor glimpsed in virtually every Croatian film lately), a parish priest in the Zagreb suburbs and a catechism teacher in a local high school. He tries to be role-model to “his children”; he drives a motorbike, plays basketball with them, drinks beer and invites them over for video-game sessions. He pays special attention to Goran (young Serbian actor Denis Murić of No One’s Child fame), a boy from an orphanage; this gets noticed by Goran’s fellow classmates and lands the boy in trouble. But the priest’s problems soon multiply when an angelic-looking, intelligent, but vain new classmate Gabriel (Murić’s buddy from No One’s Child Pavle Čemerikić) appears on the scene and becomes Goran’s rival for Miran’s attention and affection. Besides the unhealthy climate in class, the real problem emerges as Miran slowly but surely loses balance between the highest form of God’s love that he preaches and tries to live according to it, and, for a man of Catholic faith, unpleasant labels that arise from speculations about his interest in boys.

Veteran Croatian filmmaker Branko Schmidt deals with a number of interconnected, thorny topics and manages to unfold and examine them in a lean 77-minute format. This was not an easy task, since he and Balenović (together with Sandra Antolić and Zrinka Katarina Matijević) came up with numerous drafts and versions of the script trying to correctly develop the characters and create the right tensions between them. Schmidt unfolds the story like a true master, taking his time, and lets the characters breathe and atmosphere build up. Filming the characters and the modernist, cube-like architecture of new-built churches with a hand-held camera in cold tones and using almost no background music at all, Schmidt aims for the realistic effect that will only be broken in the emotionally tense last scene with Miran’s beaten-up face in the rear-view mirrors of his motorbike. Keeping in mind the intesitiy of it all, Agape is a film that demands some time to settle in the viewer’s mind.

Another of the film’s strong points is the acting. Almost all of the hard work had already been done once a well thought-out cast had been chosen and other preparations had been made, including vocal coaching for the two young Serbian actors. The only thing Schmidt had to do was to have enough faith in his actors, which he does. Bogdan is capable of plumbing emotional depths, expressed solely through his facial expressions, whilst Murić has a bright future ahead of him, since he is capable of sharing the frame with almost any actor without being intimidated or out-acted. The dynamics between him and Čemerikić work well, and the performance by veteran Croatian actor Ivo Gregurević as a pragmatic bishop is a particularly nice touch.

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