Writer and Director: Ivan Ikic
This moving but dangerous film about three young adults living in a Serbian institution for those with mental disabilities is an absorbing watch but director’s Ivan Ikic’s insistence to keep a slow tempo is both Oasis’s strength and weakness. It also should come with trigger warnings.
With the three main roles played by people who would once have been locked up, hidden away from the rest of society, the acting is top-notch, and importantly they are not playing themselves but instead very different characters. Marijana Novakov is Maria, a new patient at the facility which looks a little like a run-down holiday camp or a 60s campus university with its dormitory blocks, called pavilions in the movie’s English translation. Maria is to share a room with Dragana (Tijana Markovic), and at first they are best friends, until a boy gets in the way.
The young man is Robert (Valentino Zenuni) and even though he’s also a patient he works tirelessly in the institution, helping out in the canteen, washing dishes and mopping the corridors. He never speaks, but one day leads Maria through a gap in the fence that encircles the facility. It’s not clear what they do once they reach the countryside that lies beyond. Both bear the scars of self-harm on their arms.
A love triangle soon develops between the three of them, with Dragana determined to hold onto to her boyfriend. Because of Robert’s mutism, we never really know which girl he prefers, and his passive nature means that he’s swayed easily. When Dragana becomes violent, it comes as a shock amid the long drawn-out scenes where they fill up industrial-sized washing machines or dole out trays with soup and bread, or brush their teeth.
These long moments perhaps capture the monotony of institutional life, but they are also frustrating to watch and seem almost theatrical rather than authentic, especially in the scene where a doctor prepares to examine Dragana. But at the same time, they are hypnotic and add a little surreal touch to the film. Flashes of Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster emerge as romances and pacts happen outside the perimeter of the building or in forgotten rooms when the orderlies are sleeping.
It’s never certain why these teenagers have been committed to this institution or, indeed, what decade it is. There’s no sign of any technology, but everyone wears sports clothes that are reminiscent of the 80s or 90s. Apart from the two orderlies, the residents live life fairly independently which suggests that they could do the same in the outside world. Ikic’s story doesn’t need the institution for the story at all.
Serbia has put Oasis forward as its entry for next year’s Academy Award for International Film, but the unapologetic violence will surely prevent it from being nominated. Hopefully, we will see the three actors again. They go far in making this bleak romance credible and tender.
Oasis is screening at the Visonär Film Festival, Berlin on 13 and 14 November.