A Film a Week - Heroes / Heroji

 previously published on Cineuropa

A warrior returning home from battle is an ages-old literary trope and at least a century-old movie one. Combining it with other ideas and influences, Serbian filmmaker Goran Nikolić has created his debut feature, Heroes, which is a unique film experience in the realm of Serbian and regional cinema. The movie premiered at the Belgrade International Film Festival FEST, and it has a solid chance of securing national distribution and gaining further international exposure at niche festivals.

The plot, if there is one, is fairly basic. It is the aftermath of the Battle of Kosovo, which happened in 1389, and a Serbian knight, played by Mladen Sovilj, of The Disobedient  (2014) and Offenders (2017) fame, is on his way home while suffering from terrible PTSD. A young orphan (newcomer Todor Jovanović) joins him on the road. The warrior does not wish to have company at first, but as the journey progresses and becomes increasingly insufferable, he feels more ready to protect the playful, sometimes annoying, kid. However, the visions of the past (or maybe the future) keep haunting him…

There are influences to be noted here, both literary (from Serbian epic poetry) and cinematic, which could be described as a funky melange of the Serbian propaganda spectacle The Battle of Kosovo (1989), Nicolas Winding Refn’s visceral masterpiece Valhalla Rising  (2009) and the artsy indie road-movie genre, not too dissimilar from The Disobedient. Further connections with the first-mentioned can be noted in the presence of one of The Battle of Kosovo’s leads, Žarko Laušević, as the narrator, as well as the same sword and shield that were used in the 1989 movie. Refn’s film is represented through the visceral approach and the thematising of the topic of the PTSD that the characters are unaware of. Finally, the bright summer colours, captured by cinematographer Vladimir Đurić, which stand in sharp contrast with the sombre mood of the film, are clearly borrowed from differently toned movies, but here they work perfectly, thanks to Nikolić’s strong directorial vision.

However, there is one particular gimmick that shapes everything in Heroes: it is completely dialogue-free, and the only spoken words come from the narrator, who is the kid himself, but is now grown up thanks to the knight’s heroic efforts. The concept of the narrator seems forced, and the narration written by Kosta Peševski pretty much states obvious things that the viewer can see from the imagery. However, here, it is necessary to fill the void when the repetitions, the bizarre moments (such as the kid starting to engage in beatboxing all of a sudden) and the editing tricks (like occasional jump cuts) are not enough to stretch the film out to a feature format. On the other hand, the actors handle the pressure of being unable to express themselves through speech very well: Sovilj shows off his skills in non-verbal micro-acting, while Jovanović is adorably natural in his role. Finally, the counter-intuitive score that blends modernised folk tunes, out-of-place church music and modern genres composed by Ana Krstajić is one of the strong points of the film, as it channels the mood and fills the gaps left in the soundscape owing to the lack of dialogue.

All things considered, Heroes would be a killer short, which should not come as a surprise, given that Nikolić has had some practice in this format. As a feature, however, it is still compelling and strong despite the shoestring budget it was made on, and as a debut, it edges on the realm of the impressive.

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