Stitches (2019) REVIEW | Berlinale 2019

"An almost perfect film."

Stitches movie

A formally accomplished tale that barely wastes a frame, Stitches wrenches immense emotions out of the tiniest of details. Depicting the story of one woman’s relentless pursuit of the truth, it’s a furious indictment of a corrupt system keeping families separated throughout Serbia.

Ana (Snezana Bogdanovic) is a quiet yet determined woman. She barely speaks, even to her own husband (Marko Bacovic) and daughter (Jovana Stojiljkovic). She stalks the same places over and over again — hospitals, police stations, municipal buildings — endlessly looking for the same answer to a question that has haunted her for over eighteen years: “Where is my son buried?” She was in the hospital when she was told her son died shortly after she gave birth. All she wants to know is what they did with the body, something she cannot seem to unearth amongst Belgrade’s Kafkaesque bureaucratic system.

We do not find all of this information out straight away, director Miroslav Terzić content to show us Ana’s ordinary life first. She works as a tailor and seamstress in a small shop, when she is visited by a woman working for a missing children’s charity. She tells her to go to a certain woman in a civil service building. There she finds out the awful truth: her son is alive and was sold to another family.

This is a real phenomenon in Serbia, the postscript telling us that over 500 families are still looking for their children. Considering that not a single case has been closed, Stitches’ message is an extremely important one. But it is not a didactic film, its rigorous style elevating the material into an incredibly accomplished drama.

The use of widescreen is inspired. Often Ana is situated in the middle of the frame, the absences either side of her stressing her sense of loss. The camera often tracks her moving from right to left — at odds with cinema’s conventional use of left to right movements — highlighting the insurmountable odds she is up against. Walking is a major motif of the film, seeing Ana as she goes from building to building, always at the same pace. She has done this a hundred times, her quiet persistence a thing of wonder. In this use of repetition and depiction of bureaucratic heartlessness, it recalls the minimalism of Romanian New Wave classics such as The Death of Mr Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

Bogdanovic’s performance is incredible, able to convey a lifetime of grief within the tiniest of facial expressions. She is almost always composed, listening to endless no’s from policemen, doctors and civil servants, knowing that she may be detained at any moment but determined to go on regardless. Only when she sees children does she allow herself the chance to smile, imagining what it would finally be like to be reunited with her estranged son. There are many ways these kind of imaginative sequences could’ve devolved into kitsch, but Terzić’s direction is always restrained, leading up to a devastatingly simple final shot. An almost perfect film.

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