MIFF REVIEW: Celts (2021)

celts_posterAn extended family gathers for an eight-year-old’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-themed birthday party. This is not some outer suburb of an American city, however: this is 1993 Belgrade, a post-Yugoslavia world of breakaway republics, civil strife and runaway inflation.

Celts is the debut feature for Serbian writer/director Milica Tomović, and it works as two films in one. The first is a stark, matter-of-fact profile of life in Serbia: the Berlin Wall has fallen, and formerly stable Balkan states are splintering and falling into bloody civil wars. The economy has stumbled badly, leaving the working classes struggling in some cases to buy food for their families. The second film here seems universal: it seems that, even when at war with Bosnia and Croatia, suffering under ruthless political leaders, and scraping together what they can, people in Serbia are not so different from people anywhere else. Families are going to be complicated, marriages are going to struggle, and children will be cruel to one another. Human nature is, after all, something we all share.

It really is a masterful combination. The setting provides rich background detail and a distinctive sort of sullen aesthetic. The actual drama feels lively, well grounded, and easily relatable. If this is what Tomović can achieve in her first feature, I cannot wait to see what she creates in the future.

Marijana (Dubravka Kovjanic) is preparing a birthday party for her daughter Minja (Katarina Dimić). Their family is struggling badly in the economic climate, leading to all manner of cost-cutting exercises and sacrifices. When a group of children arrive to consume powdered soft drinks and cheaply made ham sandwices, so too does Marijana’s extended circle of family and friends – to talk, celebrate, and to fight.

Celts presents a richly drawn portrait of everyday life, showcasing marital difficulties, infidelities, friendships, and petty squabbles. It walks an impressive tightrope from comedy to drama and back again. Moments are funny, then tragic, and occasionally deeply awkward. It is wonderfully balanced, with strong characters and deft performances by a uniformly effective cast. Most of all it is so strikingly familiar. It is easy to recognise the moments when an ex-lover comes to a party with their partner, or when children gang up and bully one of their own, or even simply hanging out with a close family member that you have not seen in ages.

Strangely, it is Fića (Konstantin Ilin) – Minja’s younger cousin – who seems to act as the film’s heart. He is a small boy: younger than the other children at the party, and unknown to any of them. He arrives in his best shirt, trousers, and tie. He tries to fit in, which mostly means politely standing on the sidelines hoping someone will acknowledge him. When he gets bored, he wanders off to observe the adult drama. When a mishap dirties his shirt, he goes through a small odyssey in the attempt to clean it. As his troubles expand, it is clear that it is not Fića’s night. His efforts, however, are simply one of the most endearing things to see. He is also the one stranger among all of the personal drama. He is, in effect, the audience navigating his way through someone else’s crisis.

Celts plays delicately with sometimes heavy themes, and uses both comedy and drama in equal measure. It is a profoundly charming window on an unexpectedly familiar world, all the while so wonderfully balanced that defining it by one genre is a fool’s errand.

Celts is screening at the 2021 Melbourne International Film Festival on 7 and 11 August 2021 (assuming Melbourne is not in lockdown). It is also available to rent online across Australia from 14 August via MIFF Play. In both cases, tickets are limited.

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