Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Ena Sendijarević's Take Me Somewhere Nice, which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from May 21 - June 20, 2020 in MUBI's Debuts series.
When Dutch-Bosnian teenager Alma (Sara Luna Zoric) steps outside of the airport and for the first time in her life sets foot on the soil of her homeland, she’s not quite received with the fanfare she secretly anticipated. She came all the way from the Netherlands to Bosnia and Herzegovina to visit her hospitalized father, yet no one’s here to welcome her or even pick her up. Surely, this must be the place, but where to go from here?
Fortunately, it only takes a phone call to reveal that Alma’s slacker cousin Emir (Ernad Prnjavorac) had reluctantly agreed to collect her from the airport, but fell asleep in his car—the only one in an otherwise abandoned parking lot. “Your car is broken,” Alma comments during the bumpy ride home on the stammering noises spilling out of the shaky vehicle. “It works,” Emir dryly replies, “so it isn’t broken.”
Deadpan exchanges like these could easily serve as metaphorical comments on the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Balkans or the post-Soviet Eastern Bloc at large, but Dutch-Bosnian writer and director Ena Sendijarević never goes for the low-hanging fruit in Take Me Somewhere Nice. Her debut feature, a recipient of a special jury award in the International Film Festival Rotterdam competition and a winner of the Heart of Sarajevo, does reflect on the highly charged political history of the region, but is too aware of the complicated power dynamics of perceiving and portraying what is essentially a foreign land—Sendijarević's family emigrated to the Netherlands when she was seven years old—to regress to derogatory depictions or simplified categorizations.
Sendijarević does make use of stereotypes, but only as a device that the characters themselves employ. And they get called on it. “Girls from Holland are easy,” says Denis (Lazar Dragojevic), an attractive friend of Emir. Alma swiftly replies: “so what are you, easy or hard?” Serving questions back is a central aspect of Take Me Somewhere Nice, for the film perpetually refuses to take things at face value. When Alma finds herself in a tour bus on her way to the small-town hospital where her father lies, she overhears how some of the other passengers discuss the Bosnian state of affairs with the driver. “What has Europe ever done for us?” one asks. “What has Russia ever done for us?” the other replies. “What has America ever done for us?” they both agree. The genre—or rather mode of filmmaking—of the road movie works so well here, because all the ideas, observations, and critiques in Take Me Somewhere Nice are also perpetually in transit. Their underlying meanings and intentions aren’t fixed, always allowing for multiple interpretations.
Even its title emphasizes how this film is all about departures. Sendijarević not only captures the thrilling uncertainties that follow, but also the inevitable melancholic longing they ultimately result in. This already starts with Alma’s father, who after conceiving Alma had returned to what was formally known as Yugoslavia, out of what many Eastern Europeans describe as “Nostalghia,” an intoxicating sense of homesickness that also haunts Tarkovsky’s eponymous 1983 film. The apparent reason for Alma’s departure is to finally meet her father, but, like in so many road movies, it’s not the destination that really counts here.
Sendijarević captures how a more powerful force actually compels Alma to undergo this journey that quickly becomes a metaphorical one from adolescence to adulthood. The film truly stands out in the way it portrays Alma’s process of self-discovery and self-actualization. It’s particularly sensitive in picking up how she navigates her diasporic heritage, her awareness of her surroundings and her developing teenage sexuality. Sara Luna Zoric, like the rest of the cast a debuting non-professional actor, perfectly embodies the demanding role in all her nuances, complexities and dualities.
Like Alma’s unwieldy teenage energy, the films’ style also refuses to be pinned down. First and foremost it’s a clear departure from what Sendijarević has described as the “victimizing aesthetic” that’s been so closely associated with a particular brand of miserabilist social-realist films hailing from Eastern and Central Europe. It’s also a clear departure from the mostly unremarkable—or even worse: unimaginative—arthouse films that have plagued the Netherlands in recent years. Its youthful driving force and joie de vivre can rather be attributed to that of nouvelle vague-inspired classics like Bertrand Blier’s Going Places (1974) and radical Yugoslavian black wave films like Jovan Jovanović’ Young and Healthy as a Rose (1971). However, on a formal level Take Me Somewhere Nice’s cinematography and mise-en-scène exercise more formal restraint and contain traces of Ulrich Seidl’s rigorous framing, Roy Andersson's absurdist vignettes and Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan delivery.
One of the most striking visual aspects of Take Me Somewhere Nice is the Academy ratio of the frame, composed with a keen eye for spatial relations by Emo Weemhoff, one of the Netherlands’ most talented cinematographers. He captures the Netherlands as an oppressively homogeneous space containing identical, grayish suburban houses with awfully regulated and cramped gardens, a space that Alma is all too familiar with. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s surreal man-made hyper capitalist urban areas and the awesome vistas of their natural counterparts do offer complex spaces where Alma actually struggles to relate herself to.
However, the most complex image that Alma has to deal with is that of herself, for the visual leitmotif of this film is that of the mirror image. The film opens with a brief Netherlands-set sequence that introduces Alma, mid-shopping with her mother, gazing to herself in the dressing room mirror. She also perceives this trip as an opportunity to change her own image and possible her identity—one of the first things she does on arrival is change the color of her hair. Increasingly these mirror images turn into something more fantastical that render Take Me Somewhere Nice as an almost surrealist—and most definitely absurdist—coming-of-age story.
Sendijarević often references Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt in relation to Take Me Somewhere Nice, emphasizing that an awareness of the film’s construct has to be a part of the viewing experience. Towards the end, this strategy even accumulates in its own Lynchian Silencio-moment in which Sendijarević visually deconstructs Alma’s torn identity. Alma, Emir, and Denis attend a performance by an illusionists and Alma is invited to volunteer in the closing act. It’s a typical coffin-trick in which the volunteer appears to be sawed in half, but in this case the result seems uncannily realistic: again Alma gazes to herself, but this time only to her disembodied other half. “Surprise,” the illusionist laughs towards the stunned audience.
But the true surprise of the film lies in its very ending that feels like a cruel intervention of the otherwise freewheeling magic-realist journey that preceded it. Alma seems to have finally found her place at the shores of the Adriatic Sea, when a violent force abruptly invades the scene. It reinforces Sendijarević’s central thesis that stepping into the unknown on a road to self-discovery always comes with its own set of danger and uncertainty. Sure, this might be the place, but that doesn’t mean that it will always make you feel like you belong.