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A woman leads a placid cow through a drowsy summer meadow; the air thrums with clean life as they pick their way down to a stream. But when they get there, the water is foul: a bovine corpse is rotting in the mud. The woman recoils, turning back towards the living cow she has been leading. But she’s gone – there’s only lush summer air where the cow used to be. Most chillingly of all, the woman doesn’t seem particularly surprised.
The opening scene of Antoneta Kastrati’s meditation on motherhood, death and the aftermath of war perfectly encapsulates the sense of deep unease which will permeate this profoundly moving film. It tells the story of a woman, Lume (played with riveting intensity by Adriana Matoshi) and her long struggle both with her own fertility and with the rigid expectations that encroach on her childbearing body in the traditional culture of a rural Kosovan village.
Usually, when a film turns its gaze on the female body, the muscle memory of cinematic myth-making kicks in – whether the woman in question is a victim, a harpy or a sexualised stooge. Female fertility seems to trigger a certain moralising tendency, which insists that a mousy wife will sleepwalk with surprising ease into impregnation by the devil (Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, 1968), or that a pregnant teen can be satisfyingly slotted into the standard model of motherhood by the application of enough hormones and awakened instincts (Jason Reitman’s Juno, 2007). Even when tropes are subverted, they endure: Kornél Mundruczó’s Pieces of a Woman (2020) strained every sinew (or, more literally, the sinews of Vanessa Kirby) to present childbirth as a devastating physical ordeal, only to fall back on the well-oiled psychological machinery of maternal bereavement as an opportunity for enhanced self-actualisation.
When female directors get their hands on the key to the plotline stockroom, though, things get more interesting: Alice Lowe’s dark comedy Prevenge (2016) featured a foetus on a killing spree, while debbie tucker green’s unforgettable 2014 debut Second Coming presented us with an inexplicable and apparently supernatural pregnancy, and then dared us to make some kind of sense out of it.
Like Pieces of a Woman, Kastrati’s film is about birth and grief, but it has more in common with tucker green’s enigmatic provocation than with Mundruczó’s overwrought Oscar-bait. The authenticity of its shocking emotional freight is palpable: both Kastrati and her cinematographer and sister, Sevdije, lived through the Kosovo War of 1998-99 as teenagers, and lost close family members.
This explains the film’s rapid switches between the harmony and safety of the countryside and the ugly stain and stench of civil war. Repeatedly, the audience is jolted into and out of nightmare, as the lines are blurred between the reality of Lume’s apparently quiet and well-ordered life and the haunting traces of her trauma. In nightmares she confronts, over and over again, the death of her four-year-old daughter Zana, who was caught in the crossfire of a gun battle in 1999.
Yet the fatal moment is withheld from view almost until the end of the film, and instead we find ourselves tethered claustrophobically to Lume’s point of view as she moves between and within the dark spaces of the farmhouse and the land around it, following the unbearably laboured breathing of lungs filled with blood. These dreams descend without warning, and it is not the death itself that is most disturbing, but the nearness of death, its ineluctable and unfinished imminence.
For Lume’s husband Ilir (Astrit Kabashi), closure can only come with a rebirth, and he has been waiting for years for a new pregnancy to heal the family. But while his agitation simmers, it’s up to his mother Remzije (Fatmire Sahiti), who lives with the couple, to take decisive action.
This emphasis on Remzije’s matriarchal agency allows Kastrati to complicate any glib assumptions about the power dynamic in play here: men are shown to police and control women’s lives in the village, often violently, referring and deferring to each other in negotiations about the ownership and value of female bodies, as Ilir must do in an angry confrontation with Lume’s father. On the other hand, the making of babies is a process wreathed in female codes and mysteries, which conceal violence and sacrifice behind ritual and symbolic offerings.
Remzije drags Lume grudgingly to a gynaecologist – who gives her a clean bill of physical health but finds his suggestion of a psychiatric assessment sneeringly rejected – but from then on, it is the spirit world which is to be invoked and placated.
In the first instance, this takes the form of a visit to the local wise woman Kumria (Irena Cahani), who seems to understand that she must mediate between the warring wills of Lume and Remzije, and that any such mediation is impossible. That leaves an opening for the celebrity faith healer Dr Murati (Mensur Safqiu), who charges large sums of money in return for sniffing out malevolent jinn, but who saves his less mystical advice for the ears of Ilir alone.
Throughout these trials, Lume objects and hesitates, but she remains physically passive. The audience sees what the other characters refuse to acknowledge: that she is in thrall to her body’s own agenda, as it sends her on sleepwalking journeys into the landscape to confront the relentless pain of her unquiet grief.
The secret truth about Lume’s situation emerges uncertainly at first, as the scenes slip into and out of her imaginative terrain. Is the ceremony performed by Kumria – in which Lume sits under a blood-red veil while incantations are spoken and herbs are brewed – more ‘real’ than her visions of veiled women keening over a child’s bloodied shroud? Are the violent interventions of Dr Murati’s exorcism more superstitious and insulting than Remzije’s attempt to frighten an embryo into Lume’s womb by parading a fertile young woman in front of her frustrated husband?
Holding these questions in delicate balance are the nuanced performances of Matoshi and Kabashi, as a couple bonded as much by love and sympathy as by confusion and conflict. Most of all, we find ourselves held tightly by the utter assurance of Kastrati’s direction and her sister’s superb camerawork, which lead us steadily, unstoppably, into the darkest place on earth.
Prevenge review: Alice Lowe’s broody slasher satire
By Michael Leader
Second Coming review: on motherhood and other miracles
By Lisa Mullen
Pieces of a Woman follows the course of child birth, death and remembrance
By Catherine Wheatley
Mother! review: Darren Aronofsky’s symphony of domestic disquiet
By Nick Pinkerton
Sight & Sound June 2021
In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy