The Land Within ★★★ 1/2 Raindance 2023

The Land Within ★★★ 1/2 Raindance 2023

Fisnik Maxville’s debut feature, The Land Within, is a strong outing that is an emotionally heavy glance at the damaging legacy war brings to younger generations. Luàna Bajrami and Florist Bajgora shine in this visually impressive film.

After years of exile, Remo, an orphan, returns to his childhood village in the Balkans. He must help his adoptive cousin Una with the exhumation of a mass grave that contains most of their family members buried there during the war. But the bodies reveal family secrets that will make Remo and Una question their past and future.

Maxville brings a lot of complexities to his feature debut, not only wanting to broach upon the pain that the generation who were only children during a war feel towards each other but also on the importance of keeping traditions as well as ethnic tensions. It is an awful lot for one film to tackle. Yet, Maxville and co-writer Mathilde Henzelin do so with differing success.

As we watch Remo try and reintegrate with his adoptive family and his village in The Land Within, there is a coldness there. His former best friends greet him with smiles, but there is a discernible level of scorn present from them. Even if he was just a young teenager, he fled when they had to stay, fight and watch loved ones die. Only after a while do you understand that this scorn towards the young man isn’t entirely because he “abandoned” his village. It is more because he got to escape that he could have a healthier upbringing than staying.

This is felt the most with Una, as the last surviving child that stayed, she has had to take on the mantle of patriarch due to Remo’s absence. She has had to play a role that she never wanted, forced into a position of both having to care for her mother and other women in her family as well as lead them. Although she begrudgingly acquiesces to Remo’s return, you feel a weight begging to be lifted from her shoulders. She wants to be a woman, to feel none of this pressure, something we only begin to see towards the end of the film. With the tradition of the oldest male needing to be present at a patriarch’s death, she is conflicted and perfectly so by Bajrami.

With Remo’s former friends, seemingly the only young males left in the village, we see them wander around armed and ready to kill the wolves that have been creeping into the village. Yet, you are never convinced by them. It’s almost as if they are playing war. They are armed and ready for an enemy that isn’t really after them. Thrown into the world at a young age to protect their families and village, they haven’t been able to mentally handle the thought that they have been left behind. It is devastatingly bleak to know many people are in this position, not just in Kosovo but around the world, where war once had a firm grip on that nation.

When Una becomes free of the chains of her father, Maxville even asks us another question. If one person says another is the enemy, should you take him by his word? With her father, she and the town are convinced that the war has moved from their neighbour to the wolves, but what happens if the enemy is proven to be the opposite? Does it throw your entire world’s belief of what was told before you by the previous generation up into the air? If you can swallow the lies you have been told, what do you do next? Again, it is these concepts and strands within the narrative where the film shines.

Yet, The Land Within becomes a film that gets too wrapped up in its own story with the introduction of the frankly not overly-needed flashbacks. Any momentum and tension created by the cast and story continually gets halted for us to see why the village is the way it is now. There is no call for such a long conclusion, and at worst, it adds pointless melodrama to an already compelling story. If it doesn’t derail the film, it becomes an unnecessary inclusion.

This is such a shame as we are truly engaged with Remo and Una’s stories; the performances of Luàna Bajrami and Florist Bajgora deserve something more than what we eventually get. They, like those characters who are the same age, are meant to be playing people in their mid-20s. Still, rather purposefully, they act and, at times, even look over a decade older. They are tired characters who have seen and experienced too much and are confined to living the life expected of them in a village as close to being on its last legs as humanly possible.

Bajrami is the clear standout here as the conflicted Una. She is lost in every sense of the word, and with the return of Remo, all of those emotions begin to pour out of her. You feel her pain and emotional hopelessness at all times throughout The Land Within. Bajrami, as expected of someone with her talents, helps elevate the script by finding the right tone for someone in the middle of a family drama in a war-devastated region.

The tiniest of issues arise with her performance, however, in that as we follow her story, she almost takes the light away from Bajgora. Luckily, though, Bajgora ably matches Bajrami as the scarred (both physically and emotionally) Remo. He manages to grab us in multiple moments throughout The Land Within that have us wanting to learn more about why he was always so ostracised by his adopted community. He gives us this weary, forlorn performance of a man who doesn’t know his place in the world – a performance that deeply touches you.

If Maxwell had been able to tell his story without those flashbacks, then The Land Within would have been an excellent film tackling the guilt that resides within conflicts in the generation of children after a war. Be it the guilt of those who left at a young age or those who had no option but to stay, the trauma and damage still echo through to those who would have only been children at the time. When the film focuses on using family secrets as its key, it is fantastic. However, being so convoluted at times weakens the power it should have on its audience.

★★★ 1/2

Sisters Interrupted will be playing at the Raindance Film Festival on Friday 3rd November 2023, for more information about the showing click here

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