Juraj Lerotić’s impressive debut Safe Place is a gut-wrenching film. A purposely challenging viewing experience as we watch a mother and son pick up the shattered pieces of their family.
Set over the course of one day, Bruno, alongside his mother, sets out to help his brother, Damir, who has been exhibiting suicidal tendencies. As the day unfolds, the family are faced with several obstacles as they try to save Damir and keep their family unit whole.
There is no reasoning, no deep dive into why Damir has tried to do what he has done in Safe Place. We are left as seemingly blindsided as Damir’s family as Bruno bursts into his apartment to see what Damir has done. From then onwards, we are pushed through in a daze as we see his family try to do their best. We learn little because it doesn’t matter much about the character’s past other than the scant information we have been given. It shouldn’t matter; we should only care about them in the now and how they will get through the next day and the day after. We want and need that for these characters.
Glaringly in Safe Place is Lerotić’s opinion of authority; their monotone and unsympathetic nature is jarring, and they offer little to no help to the family. This is a person and family in crisis, and little help is provided other than the physical care of Damir. They wholly and utterly fail them when it comes to mental health care. You would think that the titular safe place is with the health professionals, but as we find here in this instance, that is the opposite case. Bruno and his mother have another location in mind; whether that actually is a safer spot for Damir remains to be seen, but it is one where more eyes would be able to be on him than in the bigger Zagreb.
Rightly for a story such as this, there is nothing overtly flashy about the direction and cinematography; the takes are long, and the shots static. We are the fly on the wall, told not to move as we watch our characters battle through their emotions to figure out how best to look after Damir. This technique works marvellously well as it allows the performers to do the work. We get to notice the small movements in their faces more. This type of filmmaking affects you more when the story is as lean as Safe Place is.
Performance-wise, our three leads are sensational; Lerotić is pulling triple duty during the film, and due to his connection to the story, it feels right that he be our anchor to proceedings. It is an understated performance with painful bursts of frenetic energy. Goran Marković is able to conjure up a sadness within him that both unsettles and astounds. You immediately feel for him, so when he utters “sorry”, you are on the floor. We are not sure what he is sorry for; it could be sorry for doing what he has done or being sorry that it was his brother who had found him. Either way, his performance is shattering.
As a family, sometimes we lie to ourselves when those close to us struggle mentally. They are just a bit down, not depressed; we, like Bruno and his mother, are not doing it because they are ignorant of the struggles of Damir or another loved one. But we are afraid, afraid to be in the knowledge that that person is in desperate need of help. The fear that what we are doing isn’t enough to help lift them away from the prospect of suicide. We want our home to be where a loved one can feel safe, but as we see in Damir, more is needed.
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