Minimalist drama "Here and There" right on target

Fri May 14, 2010 9:32pm EDT
 
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By Natasha Senjanovic

ROME (Hollywood Reporter) - Having passed below the radar despite winning two significant awards at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, Darko Lungulov's "Here and There" deserves all the attention it can get for its limited release. Beautifully executed, the semi-autobiographical film is set between the director's adopted New York and his native Belgrade, Serbia.

Audiences wanting the brash or dark storylines often associated with films from the former Yugoslavia should look elsewhere. "Here and There" is a minimalist operation, yet what starts out looking like hip Jarmusch melancholy assuredly sets deeper emotional roots. Art-house all the way, the surprisingly warm film, which opened Friday (May 14), will appeal to anyone looking for a low-key love story and glimpse into contemporary Serbia.

The dialogue is sparse, the colors unobtrusive ("Here and There" seems just a few shades off from black-and-white) and the characters each in their own way typical but never stereotypical. Lungulov also delicately captures the differences between East and West, and not only in the characters' personalities. For instance, the protagonist's bohemian poverty is a luxury against the Serbs' modest lifestyles, which help jar the man out of his emotional hibernation.

After being evicted from his apartment, Robert (David Thornton), a penniless, middle-aged saxophonist suffering from years of musician's block, meets Branko (Branislav Trifunovic), a 20-something Serbian immigrant eking out a living in the Big Apple as a one-man moving company. Desperate for cash and against his better judgment, Robert eventually accepts $5,000 from Branko to go to Belgrade and marry the younger man's girlfriend (Jelena Mrdja) so that she can get her U.S. immigration papers and join Branko in America.

Things go awry on both sides of the Atlantic, but in the meantime the handsome, monosyllabic Robert gingerly warms to his hostess in Belgrade, Branko's mother, Olga (Mirjana Karanovic of "Esma's Secret," in yet another faultless performance), who knows nothing of the real reason for his visit. Robert is adrift, his gruffness a self-conscious front for frustration and zero self-esteem. Olga is centered and teeming with pride, but just as vulnerable as Robert in her loneliness.

Performances are everything in such an understated film, and all are superb. There is as much depth and honesty to Branko's desperation as there is in the unexpected connection that blooms between two weary middle-aged people.

Thornton infuses his grouch with sparks of comedy and a hint of the pathetic that slowly grow on us, so that the slightest of smiles is all that's needed for the film's graceful ending. Antone Pagan as a street-smart mechanic and Fedja Stojanovic as Olga's neighbor also stand out in their smaller parts.

The score's title track was written for the film by Cyndi Lauper, who has a cameo in "Here and There" and is Thornton's real-life wife.