Of all the tenets associated with slow cinema, the act of surrender seems among the most meaningful. No matter the directors linked to the movement—Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Béla Tarr, several of the New Romanian auteurs—the connective tissue isn’t so much these films’ glacial pace, as it is their insistence that the viewer acquiesce to their approach. The desire to strip away the niceties of traditional narrative—dynamic characters, action-packed stories, unambiguous endings—may seem perverse or combative, but once a viewer submits to these movies’ conditions, a powerfully meditative reaction can flourish. Rather than coming across as willfully withholding, these films are frequently unspeakably emotional—radiating calm, terror, grace or melancholy with an almost unfiltered clarity.
That sense of surrender can also apply to the characters. In All the Cities of the North, Bosnian filmmaker Dane Komljen presents us with a handful of silent individuals who seem to have little in their lives except each other. In a similar fashion, this languid work eschews many narrative conventions while seeking out new ways of communicating. It’s a movie about isolation that ends up being very welcoming if you give it the chance.
Set in the middle of nowhere in Montenegro, All the Cities of the North initially gives off the air of a minimalist post-apocalyptic drama—a feeling that never entirely dissipates. None of the film’s main characters are identified by name: A young man (Boban Kaludjer) lives off the land in an abandoned complex alongside a balding older man (Boris Isakovic). Are they lovers? Merely close friends who sleep next to each other in a tent? It’s but one mystery that Komljen declines to explain, preferring to let us just be in this space with these people.
The two men never speak, although very rarely an internal monologue will break the silence, the voiceover often discussing other things—like architecture or a poem—rather than what’s happening on the screen. Nearby, a construction project is underway, but like much of All the Cities of the North, there’s no notion that the activity matters much—it’s something to do, nothing more.
Eventually, the two men’s small little world is invaded by a third man (Komljen), who insinuates himself into their lives, their pasts unknown and the reasons why he’s able to disrupt their situation left unclear. But by the time Komljen, who makes his feature directorial debut with All the Cities of the North, appears in the story, it’s apparent that we’ve been invited to interpret these occurrences as we see fit. Why is a white chair spray-painted red at one point—only to be destroyed with an ax much later in the film? Why are there underwater sequences that seem to have no bearing on the rest of the story? What are these men doing in this desolate place? See this movie with five people, and they’re likely to offer five different perspectives on what takes place.
Art cinema’s pleasure and its risk derive from the same source: Movies like All the Cities of the North follow their own rhythm, tell stories in their own way, and don’t worry so much about “entertaining” an audience with the standard methods. That adventurousness inevitably holds these filmmakers up to criticism from those who want to label them pretentious or snobs or fatally self-absorbed. But too often, that dismissive view refuses to even meet the filmmaker halfway, neglecting what can often be poignant and thoughtful in such works.
Despite its puzzles, All the Cities of the North isn’t aiming for obscuration. Instead, Komljen asks us to identify with the film’s almost primal depiction of male bonding, spiritual deterioration and loneliness. But, provocatively, the movie also seems to be commenting on slow cinema itself—or, at the very least, the techniques used to produce its effects. Without warning, about halfway through, All the Cities of the North introduces the presence of a small camera crew, which films the characters. We’ll see a shot of two men in bed, and then we’ll see a shot of the camera crew filming those men—first, there’s the scene, and then there’s the reveal of how the scene was shot. It happens at arbitrary moments, but each time it happens, Komljen reminds us that, for as much as slow cinema has been advertised as a more naturalistic depiction of real life, there are still basic cinematic principles at play in All the Cities of the North—just as there are in a traditional narrative. Even the “purity” of slow cinema is a moviemaking illusion.
It’s a funny, self-mocking observation, and it’s crucial to Komljen’s strategy of looking past his film’s stillness to convey what he’s actually trying to say. These three men, each of them profoundly inarticulate, don’t just seem adrift from society but also themselves. There’s the occasional glimpse of affection between two of them—a cuddle, a tight embrace—but the silence in these scenes speaks to a deep longing that’s more potent because nobody’s talking. The lack of dialogue isn’t a gimmick—it’s a way of expressing a world in which the characters don’t fit in and their basic needs are reduced to their most basic elements.
As All the Cities of the North glides to its ending, scenes of destruction, finality and resignation start to weave into the story. I can’t say I “understood” any of Komljen’s main characters—you’d be hard-pressed to guess which of the three men is a professional actor without help from IMDb—but living in their orbit for a couple hours, I nonetheless felt a kinship with their existential abandonment. These men have surrendered to their mysterious circumstances—responding in kind reaps rewards for the audience.
Director: Dane Komljen
Writer: Dane Komljen
Starring: Boban Kaludjer, Boris Isakovic, Dane Komljen
Release Date: Screening at the Locarno in Los Angeles Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.