MIRAGE (Svetozar Ristovski, 2004)

“Hope is the worst evil, for it prolongs the torment of man.” — Nietzsche

Directed by Svetozar Ristovski from a script by him and Grace Lea Troje, Iluzija is a sober, serious although largely predictable and dull film from Macedonia despite flashes of deadpan humor. Its protagonist is a pre-teen boy, Marko, who is bullied by his older sister, Fanny, at home and by vicious classroom peers who resent his high intelligence (with grades to match) and the fact he is their Bosnian teacher’s “pet” in Macedonian class. Marko’s mother, who is abused by her husband, Marko’s father, is uninterested in either her son’s academic record or the poetry he writes. Meanwhile, Lazo, the husband and father is in a deeper rut than usual; out on strike from the factory where he works, he principally occupies himself with getting drunk every day. His attitude toward his son, drunk or sober, remains warm and paternal; but this serves to make wife and daughter feel even more estranged from Marko. Marko’s teacher praises his poems and encourages him to enter a competition that would take him to Paris if he should win. (”What is life without hope?” he rhetorically asks.) The patriotic poem that Marko writes as a “test,” for an Independence Day celebration, turns out to be something that the teacher disparages and rejects. “You should be ashamed of yourself!” he tells Marko, throwing the poem into his face. Meanwhile, Marko has attached himself to another surrogate father or “big brother”: “Paris,” a gun-toting thief, who gives Marko false hope that he will take Marko with him when he leaves for Paris. Paris, though, leaves without Marko, leaving behind something else: a gun.
     Adorable Marko Kovacevic gives an astute, sensitive performance as Marko; his transformation from a shy, quiet boy into a cold-blooded killer is more believable, almost, than we want it to be. Contributing to this outcome in Veles, the town where the action is set, are regional conflict and the town’s current occupation by NATO “peacekeepers.” So much that is out of his control is driving Marko’s life to its dead-end.
     I am not going to get into that parlor game where reviewers aim to decipher whether Paris is real or imaginary; the gun certainly seems real. His counsel, note, is the antithesis of what the teacher tells Marko: “Even the finest flower comes to stink in the sewer.” However, better than the dialogue that Paris spews are the images we associate him with. In Veles a transient, Paris is holed up in an abandoned car in the
“train graveyard.” Indeed, a visual refrain in the film consists of forlorn shots of train tracks going nowhere. It is noted that trains pass through town without ever stopping. It is possible, if Paris exists, that he would not have been able to take Marko along with him.
     Shorn of his opposite-image surrogate fathers, Marko can claim only one authentic father: Lazo. With his son by his side as they walked home down along the train tracks, Lazo told him: “Marko, you can be whatever you want in life; but just don’t be a rat.” Ordered to name names once he is the only student who is caught after he has been impressed into joining others in committing vandalism after-hours in a school building, even though his capture is the result of the others’ having locked him in a burning room, Marko heeds his father and “rats out” no one. Is it possible that hope is not the only “illusion” to which the title refers? There is the possibility of Paris, of course; but what of the murder that Marko commits? Perhaps that, too, is an illusion—compensation for a life that appears to be without hope.
      Vlado Jovanovski is good as Laso; an hilarious moment arrives when Marko asks him if he also wrote poetry as a boy and he responds with something betwixt a grunt and a sigh, as if he is thinking, “Lord, is this really a son of mine?” It is my favorite bit in the film.

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