Zana, dir. Antoneta Kastrati, Kosovo/Albania 2019, 97m, Cert: 15 (UK)
A decade after the Kosovo War, Lume is plagued by nightmares of a bloody young figure, whilst having trouble conceiving. Unable to live up to her husband and stepmother’s expectations, Lume is taken to spiritual healers who treat her apparent infertility against her will. Despite several oppressive and sexually unsatisfying encounters, Lume soon becomes pregnant. However, struggling with PTSD, she attempts to flee the family home only to be returned by her father. She seeks the help of the local ‘witch’ to rid herself of the child, but, unable to do so and with her night-time hallucinations intensifying, Lume journeys out in the snow to find a final resting place upon the grave of her daughter, Zana, who was killed in the war.
Kosovo’s unsuccessful entry to the Academy Awards’ Best International Feature category (but recent winner of the Best Feature Film Grand Jury Prize at the South East European Film Festival in Los Angeles), Zana deftly contrasts its bucolic setting with post-war civilian PTSD and the oppressive expectations of women-as-mothers in a traditional society. The protagonist, a Kosovar woman named Lume, is unable to conceive and is pushed to seek the help of supernatural healers by a family who view bearing children and motherhood as a woman’s main value.
The extended family units and agricultural lives portrayed in the film highlight the patriarchal nature of rural Kosovan society. The women’s social discussions revolve around children and the prospects of conception, and the central husband-wife conflict is underpinned by the recurring suggestion that Lume’s husband, Ilir, might take another more fertile bride. Lume is also treated as the property of men, perfectly captured in a scene when, in the prolonged throes of a traumatic episode, she seeks refuge at her parents’ home and is returned to Ilir by her father, who chastises the former for his inability to control her.
The film repeatedly draws attention to the pervasion of male dominance in this society, especially in the presence of the snake oil spiritual healer who convinces the family that Lume is possessed, with her protestations and surfacing trauma only reinforcing this diagnosis in their eyes. Lume is frequently told she is unwell or not thinking clearly, but mental illness does not seem to be up for discussion; curses and the supernatural are a more accessible and comprehensible conclusion, ironically allowing Lume’s unsympathetic family to maintain some sense of normality.
As Lume, Adriana Matoshi (who, coincidentally, starred as Zana in 2017’s Unwanted) brings restrained ferocity, grief and tenderness to her performance, marking the turmoil boiling beneath the surface of her every action, and defining her gradual detachment from reality in a world of controlling men and mothers.
Partnering with cinematographer sister, Sevdije Kastrati, director Antoneta Kastrati has crafted a harrowing and layered tale of failed rebirth, informed by the loss of their own sister and mother during the final days of the Kosovo War. With these roots, it is no surprise then that Zana highlights personal damage in the aftermath of armed conflict, interspersing its down to earth drama and human tension with provocative flashes of horror.
This is not to say that the film relies on cheap genre thrills, as Zana is shot in an unpretentious manner entirely befitting the serious subject matter. This sober visual style is maintained throughout, save for the brief, deeply unsettling and increasingly explicit sequences of a bloodied corpse, which are so unnerving that, at times, the film feels as though it is nudging the boundaries of its 15 certificate.
While these moments provide insight into the real catalyst behind Lume’s inability to conceive, it is not until near the close of the film that the source of her trauma is seen, with painful detail, in the harsh light of day. But this haunting imagery is not without purpose, and it illustrates the horrendous, post-traumatic nightmares of the protagonist in heart-rending clarity, inching towards a dark and unforgettable conclusion.
Alisdair Hodgson is a Scottish editor and writer of poetry, fiction and the occasional piece of entertainment journalism.