A Film a Week - The Dawn / Zora

 previously published on Cineuropa

Dalibor Matanić’s The High Sun (winner of the 2015 Jury Award at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard competition) was arguably the biggest international success for Croatian cinema since the country’s independence. The prolific filmmaker revealed at the time that the film was the first instalment in an intended trilogy. The second part, The Dawn, has just premiered in competition at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

The story is set in the dystopian near future of 2021, in a sparsely populated valley. A married couple, composed of Matija (Krešimir Mikić, the star of Predrag Ličina’s The Last Serb in Croatia and Rasmus Kloster Bro’s Cutterhead) and Ika (Tihana Lazović, whose role in The High Sun made her the rising star of the Croatian and European cinema) live with their two children in a shack. Poverty is the least of their problems, their relationship marred by unresolved issues revolving around the disappearance of their third child and a sense of the impending doom in the whole area driving out the population at such rates that even the local church is about to close.

Apart from Matija’s radio-amateur efforts, there is no TV or radio signal here, and enemy forces referred only as “them” are coming from the city, reportedly wreaking havoc on their way. Moreover, Ika and Matija are from different backgrounds: Ika from that of the village folk, and Matija from the city, which makes him look suspicious in the eyes of his neighbours who fear that he might be one of “them”. The two of them also find themselves on different sides of the dilemma about whether to move to the relative safety of the city, or to stay here and keep looking for their missing son.

The arrival of a stranger also named Matija (Slovenian actor Marko Mandić who also left the mark in German cinema with the role in Thomas Arslan’s western Gold) who decides to build his house close to the couple’s home, and of a religious woman (Nataša Matjašec Rošker) also named Matija, stirs the confusion further, both for Ika and for “the original” Matija. While Ika tries to find her true self in the material and religious world, Matija is engaged in a fight within himself, which he must win in order to protect the loved ones.

Contrary to the clear coding of “us” and “them” along ethnic lines in The High Sun, Matanić here goes for more complicated and abstract divisions, filling his film with a dense atmosphere and heavy-hitting symbolism. He is at his best when playing with supernatural elements, creating a kind of slow-burning horror and even an action sequence blended with musical elements near the film’s end. The characters seem to be mesmerised by bodies of water and lights, both natural and artificial, while the plot takes a turn at the break of dawn.

The actors are likewise at the top of their game here, mixing their strong instincts with the clues from Matanić’s script. Both Lazović and Mikić dig deep within themselves to channel complex emotions, with Mandić especially wild as he uses his natural expressiveness to channel a snake-like charm, while Serbian actor Boris Isaković is the film’s moral anchor in the role of the local innkeeper. Beautifully lensed by his The High Sun collaborator Marko Brdar, who makes the best of rural Italian locations, and rhythmically edited to perfection by Tomislav Pavlic, The Dawn is an outstanding work of cinema.

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