The Movie Waffler Raindance 2023 Review - THE LAND WITHIN | The Movie Waffler

Raindance 2023 Review - THE LAND WITHIN

The Land Within review
A refugee is confronted with secrets from his past when he returns home to Kosovo.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Fisnik Maxville

Starring: Florist Bajgora, Luàna Bajrami, Valmir Krasniqi, Irena Aliu, Era Balaj, Luan Jaha

The Land Within poster

There's an old saying that advises anyone interested in learning the history of Russia to acquire a shovel. The Land Within suggests the same maxim applies to Kosovo's recent past.

Swiss-Kosovar filmmaker Fisnik Maxville has made several documentaries exploring the relationship between his two nations, and his first narrative feature opens in 2008 with a 25-year-old former Kosovo refugee, Remo (Florist Bajgora), pleading his case to a citizenship board in Geneva, where he has resided since fleeing his country a decade earlier. Remo has requested that the process be sped up as he wishes to return to his village where his adoptive uncle Skender (Luan Jaha) is on his death bed. Tradition states that a male be present at the time of Skender's death, and with every other male in the family having been killed in the conflict, the burden lies with Remo. Should Remo leave Switzerland before his request for citizenship is approved, he will be unable to return to his adopted country.

The Land Within review

We never learn the result of Remo's request, but he returns to Kosovo regardless. There he finds the unconscious Skender in a precarious state, his life support systems reliant upon a not so reliable generator at his cottage. Tending to Skender is Remo's cousin Una (a role that sees rising French star Luana Bajrami exploring her Kosovar roots). Una requested Remo to return with reluctance. Like others in the village, she feels betrayed by Remo for leaving during the conflict while others stayed and fought and in many cases, perished. Una is also uncomfortable with the return of the romantic feelings she has long harboured for her adoptive cousin.

When a UN crew arrives in the village to excavate a mass grave, long buried secrets are literally dug up. Una and Remo present a list of lost family members, but the list doesn't tally with the UN's list as compiled via the village's registry of births. A woman by the name of Fatime is unaccounted for. Neither Una nor Remo have ever heard of such a woman, but they suspect she may be the mysterious face in an old photograph they find among Skender's belongings.

The Land Within review

Through flashbacks to 1985 we learn the identity of Fatime and see how the young Skender (Valmir Krasniqi) ruled his village with an iron fist. The ethnic tensions that would violently explode in the following decade are clearly simmering, with Skender warning of the threat posed by those from a neighbouring village, and boasting about how he's prepared for a war he appears to be anticipating with relish.

These flashbacks suffer from being a little too on-the-nose, with characters speaking in what sounds more like political speechifying than any natural dialogue. The film is far more successful in its present day scenes, where the sins of the past are left ambiguous. Maxville and co-writer Mathilde Henzelin buck our expectations of this sort of narrative in how Remo reintegrates into the community he left behind. Una's initial scorn for Remo's cowardice masks a jealousy towards his ability to escape the horrors she was forced to stay and witness. The same goes for Remo's former friends, whom we meet at first dressed for hunting wolves but giving the impression they've trained the sights of their rifles on human prey in the recent past. When Remo is invited to join them on a hunting expedition we expect it to play out like the hunting scenes in Straw Dogs and Wake in Fright, with Remo mocked for his perceived lack of masculinity. Instead his friends express an understanding of why he fled, and ask if Switzerland is better than Kosovo. Remo doesn't answer.

The Land Within review

The threat of wolves descending on the village is employed here in similar fashion to the bears in Cristian Mungiu's recent Romanian drama RMN. They're a distraction for a people who seem to need an enemy to face, and better it be animal than human. When Una finds herself in a face-off with the wolves after venturing into the woods at night, she finds they don't pose the existential threat she had been lead to fear. Did the neighbouring villagers pose a genuine threat or did Skender's hostility ultimately prove a self-fulfilling prophecy? Like Martin Scorsese's Killers of the Flower Moon, The Land Within asks us to identify the wolves in the picture. But in Europe's conflicts, where the enemy in your rifle scope might look like your brother, and indeed sometimes actually is a family member, such distinctions aren't always so easy to make.

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