With its focus on gory night terrors, supernatural apparitions, and occult imagery, you’d be forgiven for initially thinking that Antoneta Kastrati’s Zana (not to be confused with Lucrecia Martel’s Zama) is a horror film. Rather, in its reappropriation of horror tropes and visual language, it delivers a striking antithesis to films like Hereditary (2018) or The Babadook (2014), which transmuted the turmoil of grief-stricken motherhood into a tangible threat, allowing it to be confronted and processed. No such comfort is offered here.
What’s immediately noticeable about Zana is its eye for quotidian detail. Each interaction between the Kosovar villagers on screen, from passive-aggressive gestures to giggling gossip, expresses a recognisable, lived-in quality. It’s not surprising, then, that director and co-writer Kastrati not only has a background in documentary filmmaking, but has drawn upon her own experiences during and after the Kosovo war, in which Yugoslavian forces enacted a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Kosovo Albanians. In her narrative feature debut, she follows the story of Lume (Adriana Matoshi, quietly compelling), a rural Kosovar woman who lost her daughter in the senseless tragedy of that very war (just as Kastrati lost a mother and sister), and struggles to bear her husband another child. As fertility issues burrow deeper into the fabric of the couple’s relationship and trigger vicious nightmares for Lume, she’s pressured into seeking mystical remedies for her predicament.
I initially found the film tiresome with its reliance on nightmare sequences which ambiguously toy with reality, a horror trope in films such as Under the Shadow (2016) that’s quickly turning into a pet peeve of mine. Yet the film gradually tears at the illusion that supernatural forces are in fact conspiring to torment the couple — a revelation that the characters are tragically never granted. Out of desperation, Lume and her husband Ilir (Astrit Kabashi) visit a revered televangelist who convinces Ilir that jinn (the sinister spirits who also featured in Under the Shadow ) have possessed Lume, turning her cold and withdrawn. It’s genuinely sickening to watch as Lume’s unresolved trauma is cast off to the realm of the supernatural, something that must be combated with force and later culminates in a horrifying exorcism scene — but with no malevolent occupying force present. It’s a confronting view of a culture which not only struggles with the weight of national trauma but also complex female psychology, and literally demonises women when they fail to fulfill their duties.
It’s a shame, then, that Zana’s plot struggles to support its dissection of Kosovar culture and justify Matoshi’s genuinely affecting performance. Watching Lume slowly breaking down is undoubtedly moving, with Matoshi hinting at waves of anger and grief in her tight-lipped performance, but it steadily turns monotonous when she’s given little to do outside of running away from home, and her character deliberately refrains from expressing her disenfranchisement at the hands of her husband and mother-in-law. After being diagnosed with a case of possession, there’s a brief sequence in which Lume’s mother-in-law locks her inside the house and proceeds to hide her presence from the rest of the world. Yet the gaslight scenario doesn’t end with Lume taking any sort of meaningful action to escape; the film simply moves on when she passes out after viewing a distressing videotape.
Kastrati and Casey Cooper Johnson’s script is clearly torn between letting viewers sink into the minutiae of Lume’s psychological struggle and propelling them onto the next story beat. Consequently, the film seldom feels organic; I’d go as far to say that the entire third act feels superfluous. Despite jumping forward in time, it offers few fresh insights into Lume’s character or her tragic circumstances, content to merely rehash beats before stumbling onto a contrived emotional climax.
Kastrati admirably manages to elevate contrasts within the grim subject matter, merging the lush idyll of Lume’s rural life with the culture of superstitious misogyny that engulfs her. There’s certainly a rich absurdity to her predicament, where terrifying demons of unspeakable power are easier to contend with than the mere existence of psychological conditions. The film also embraces the contradictions inherent to family structures, in which people are beset by loved ones who may be as eager to help as they are misguided. They’re compelling ideas, to be sure; they just deserved to be explored through a better story.
Zana screens as part of Sydney Film Festival’s Virtual Edition and Awards from June 10–21 2020. More info here.
Jamie Tram is a writer, filmmaker, and screwball obsessive from Melbourne, Australia. His writing lurks at Senses of Cinema, Kill Your Darlings, and other places. You can direct all your complaints to @tram_i_am.