A review of Martesa, which premieres in Prishtina on January 31: bolstered by a marvelous supporting cast, Martesa confirms that Zeqiri is an immense talent.
Risky liaisons are much safer during wartime. The emotional chaos and physical danger of a life lived shrouded in secrecy by necessity contracts, and one’s deepest, truest desires can expand, given freer reign under cover of the mayhem that surrounds you. All the rules of your society – those acknowledged by laws and contracts, as well as all the unwritten interpersonal codes of conduct – are cast aside.
Some individuals not only survive; they are able to realize their true selves amidst the maelstrom of a world turned upside down and shaken to its core. Peacetime returns eventually and although it is a peace that is incredibly tentative and fragile, everyone agrees, per the social contract, that things can finally return to a state of normalcy.
As it is in most newly aspirational modern societies, the spectacle of a wedding which includes the act of a man and a woman entering into the marriage contract publicly before witnesses is part of the assurance of that normalcy. People count on it in order to continue to make sense of a world that’s never quite righted itself. How could it when so many have disappeared without a trace and still have not yet been found? How could it when all the contradictions and hypocrisies most survivors choose to live with get re-shrouded into secret pockets, a skein of lies laid carefully over all things still deemed unspeakable?
In Blerta Zeqiri’s debut feature film Martesa (The Marriage), Anita, a young, vibrant woman living in Prishtina, is being lied to on all sides, swathed in the reassurance that with her new soon-to-be fabulously handsome husband by her side, she will bring up lots of beautiful babies and cook delicious meals for them all in her well-appointed custom made kitchen, and all the nightmares of abandonment, orphan-hood and a bombed-out life soothed with massive quantities of alcohol will be left far behind.
As she’s proven in previous work, Zeqiri has a masterful sense of casting, a keenly honed sense of how to turn the characters she’s imagined into fully realized flesh and blood human beings. On the surface, Adriana Matoshi’s Anita holds her pain in the lightest of ways most of the time, but that’s because she is still treated like a child, never moving beyond childish games and secrets, protected as a child would be from the unpleasant things around her. She’s learned to lie as well, of course; she’s just not very good at it. Matoshi is the same actress that delivered a stunning performance in Zeqiri’s award-winning short film Kthimi (The Return). She has a sublime talent for letting the subtlest of emotions rumble across her face, then quickly reassembling herself into the chatty, superficial bride-to-be everyone around her wants her to be. Like a child, she only wants to please, even if it’s to her own emotional detriment, just so long as she’s not abandoned again.
From the beginning, there is something off-kilter about her relationship with her fiance Bekim, played with the high artistry we’ve come to expect from Alban Ukaj, an actor that uses every cell of his corpus here to convey the nuances of a man constantly acting out his expected role behind a very thin veil of patience and trying like hell to find a bit of satisfaction out of the choices he’s felt forced to make. It is only with the return of his childhood friend Nol that his constructed facade begins to crumble.
Here is where we can go back to Zeqiri’s spot-on intuition in asking Genc Salihu to play Nol. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, we know Salihu as a musical superstar in Kosovo, as well as in Albania, a songwriter-singer-performer that can inhabit and imbue any song with worlds upon worlds of story. We catch a couple of glimpses of his musical artistry here, one instance a beautifully rendered scene of Nol and Bekim as young men dueting to the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” I am always left breathless after seeing one of Salihu’s stage performances, but he is a revelation in this role, offering up a scorching, uncompromising performance as the heartbroken Nol.
One can prepare oneself for what kind of love story – or love triangle, if you will – this is by watching the trailer or reading the synopsis, so it’s not so much that there is a shocking reveal. But what this viewer wasn’t prepared for is the staggering presence of Salihu that contains and expresses all the pain-wracked, crushing torture of unrequited love, a love that both parties know is impossible and yet, and yet, he still hopes. It’s like Arthur Rimbaud came to life inside this man. Everything visibly deadens when Nol is not around, everyone else returning to form, as phantoms gloomily inhabiting preordained roles, an ability Nol outwardly disdains, but inwardly slightly envies, for he is shut out in the cold.
It is no small thing that Zeqiri and her scriptwriting partner (and husband) Kreshnik Berisha aka Keka decided to create a gay love story. Kosovo, and the Balkan region as a whole, as well as good portions of the rest of the planet, we can’t exactly call gay-friendly by any stretch. Most live in dire fear of being outed. Or if already out, they are attacked, sometimes even killed. Nol might allow himself to have highly romantic notions during wartime, but in peacetime he’s decided to hightail it to France. When he returns to Prishtina, he’s very aware of what he’s in for, but his undying love for Bekim makes him temporarily bold.
Zeqiri and Berisha’s superb script really shines in a very quiet flashback scene between Nol and Bekim as they are lying down side by side in the dark in Bekim’s bedroom. In talking about the state of things, Nol says: “I’m doing great. I’m loving it so much. There’s a war, you know? …[But] I’ve never been so complete. If the Serbs weren’t killing us, I would always want to live like this.” A description of forbidden love as finely described as any I’ve heard.
Bolstered by a marvelous supporting cast, Martesa confirms that Zeqiri is an immense talent. And in Berisha, she has the perfect dancing partner to realize her exceptional cinematic visions. Berisha as editor uses a cutting method we also saw in Kthimi that perfectly keeps tempo with cinematographer Sevdije Kastrati’s unnerving camerawork, edgy, raw and urgent as if the makers are endeavoring just to keep up with the breathing patterns of the protagonists, emotions inflating and deflating so rapidly sometimes the head spins.
It all culminates in the most desperately unhappy wedding party, where the relentless mechanics of the marriage contract drift flaccidly into everyone’s brainpans, the bride looking very uncertain and discomfited, the groom abject and ready to cry, and not with tears of joy. It is a devastating mirror held up to a place and time where upwardly mobile young couples like Anita and Bekim have only their customised kitchens and microbrews to stave off the harsher realities of identifying remains of loved ones salvaged from mass graves under a cold muddy tent whilst burying (and re-burying) the remains of their own lost souls.
Martesa will be playing at Cineplexx (Albi Mall, Prishtina) and Doku Kino (Prizren) starting from February 1.