A Film a Week - Mali

previously published on Cineuropa

Oddly enough, the last and the most eagerly awaited world premiere at this year’s edition of the Pula Film Festival, Mali, written and directed by Antonio Nuić (All for Free, Donkey, Life Is a Trumpet), is a sequel of sorts. Or, more accurately, an instalment in his series of shorts and features about the same characters. They were introduced in one of his student shorts, rising to national fame in the final chapter of the well-received triptych Sex, Drinks and Bloodshed, on the topic of football hooliganism in Croatia, where a night of game-watching among friends veers off in an unpredictable direction, unearthing dangerous secrets.
Some 13 years later, the child seen as a baby in the previous film, Mali (mesmerising newcomer Vito Dijak), is about to finish primary school. His mother, Martina (not seen in the film), is dying of cancer in hospital, and his father, Frenki, played by Vito’s real-life father Franjo Dijak (Goran), has come back from jail a changed man – not exactly leaving his criminal ways behind, but becoming more savvy about them. The trouble is that as soon as Martina dies, her parents will sue Frenki to gain custody of Mali and probably win the case, even though the boy has been doing much better in life since his father got back, improving his grades, behaving better and nurturing his chess skills. However, Frenki has a plan that not only involves testimonies from the staff at Mali’s school, but also from his new business partners, his sleazy lawyer friend Vladek (Robert Ugrina) and dirty cop Majić (Živko Anočić), as well as his loser mates Boki (Bojan Navojec), Raks (Rakan Rushaidat) and Kečo (Hrvoje Kečkeš). Meanwhile, overly violent cop Slišković is on his tail.
In Mali, Nuić disaffirms the “Hitchockian” theory of “drama as life with the dull parts cut out”. Pretty much all we see are people immersed in ordinary situations and rituals: chit-chat, buddy-to-buddy banter, drinking, doing drugs, enjoying a birthday party and a field trip, all of which is slotted into a compelling crime storyline, while the supposed action takes place off screen. Its “Croatian Usual Suspects” label might ensure that it gets some time on the festival circuit before it opens domestically in winter 2019.
This lean, 90-minute film works better than expected for such an ambitious crime-drama transposed to a Croatian setting thanks to Nuić’s precise writing, dialogue that blends gritty realness and effortless cool, and his sure-handed directing that uses the skills of the crew (consisting of his usual collaborators) to the maximum. Radislav Jovanov Gonzo’s cinematography (varying the colour palette to match the location, whether urban or rural, and changing the length of the shots to match the mood) is impressive, as is Hrvoje Štefotić’s pulsating, tension-inducing original score.
The actors are also employed masterfully. Franjo Dijak, Rakan Rushaidat, Bojan Navojec and Hrvoje Kečkeš have certainly played some part in creating their characters together with Nuić from their student times on. Now, the “gang” has been reinforced by Robert Ugrina and Živko Anočić (doing a good job of being both scary and smart at the same time), and especially by Vito Dijak, whose measured, controlled performance is rarely seen in child actors. He might just represent the bright future of the Croatian acting scene, while his character is, ironically, the very dark, dystopian future of Croatian society if trends such as risky yet highly organised crime and corruption continue to grow.

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