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KARLOVY VARY 2019 Competition

Review: Half-Sister

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- Damjan Kozole's new film is a story about two women who learn how to live with each other despite mutual animosity

Review: Half-Sister
Liza Marijina and Urša Menart in Half-Sister

Slovenian filmmaker Damjan Kozole is a regular in the competition programme of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, picking up the Best Director award there with his previous film Nightlife [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Damjan Kozole
film profile
]
in 2016. Teaming up again with Croatian co-writer Ognjen Sviličić and Serbian cinematographer Miladin Čolaković, with the addition of writer and actress Urša Menart, Kozole has brought his new picture Half-Sister [+see also:
trailer
interview: Damjan Kozole
film profile
]
to the main festival competition.

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Hairdresser Irena (Menart), in her late 20s, is in the process of divorcing Brane (Jurij Drevenšek). She returns from Ljubljana to her coastal hometown of Izola only to immediately get in a fight with her bitter mother Breda (Damjana Černe). Going out one evening, she runs into her half-sister Neža (Liza Marijina) at the very moment when the latter pulls a knife on a girl who is verbally abusing her.

Irena and Neža are apparently completely different and profess that they hate each other, although they barely ever communicated before: their father (Peter Musevski) left Irena's mother for Neža's mom Ardita (Labina Mitevska). For that reason, the two older women resent each other, Breda blaming Ardita for ruining her life. This hatred has trickled down to the daughters who have simply accepted it as their own. There is also an additional excuse that Breda loves to pull: Ardita is an Albanian, not the most respected origin for someone living in Slovenia.

Now that Irena is moving out of Brane's place and Neža has decided to go back to study communications in Ljubljana, the only feasible solution, in the city where rentals are increasingly scarce due to the dominance of Airbnb, is for them to share a flat. It is therefore time for the cold, reserved, gracious, long-haired blonde Irena to find a way to co-exist with the volatile, aggressive, uncompromising, vegan, short-haired and leather-jacket-clad Neža. This oil-and-water setup is an old adage, and of course, the audience has no doubt that by the end of the film the two half-sisters will find common ground and even bond, in their rented flat with only basic appliances, bare, cracked walls and one bedroom to share.

At the beginning of the film, Neža's character is pretty much an annoying stereotype of the punkish rebel who hates people but loves animals, and whose every other response is "Mind your own business" or "Why do you care?" Irena, on the other hand, is something else, especially in the way that Menart plays her: there is a lot of repressed emotion boiling under her composed surface. As the film progresses, Marijina manages to infuse Neža with a layered personality and transcend the cliché that she was given to play. However, some of the numerous incendiary exchanges, and even something resembling a physical fight that the two engage in, feel unnatural and contrived, with lines of dialogue including "There is not an ounce of morality in you."

A couple of episodes involving Brane see Drevenšek seemingly hesitate on how to play the creepily possessive husband, but the context provided ensures the audience can recognize his type  — and his presence and behaviour also serve as catalysts for the girls to grow closer.

The work of versatile and acclaimed DoP Čolaković makes the best of the claustrophobic flat setting, while exteriors switch between Izola seaside and bits of urban Ljubljana. The film's moderate tempo helps audiences recognize the message about the importance of communication and the way it can alleviate the damage that irrational hatred brings to families and individuals. 

Half-Sister is a co-production between Slovenia's Vertigo, Macedonia's Sisters and Brother Mitevski, Serbia's Baš Čelik, with participation from Slovenian national broadcaster RTV Slovenia.

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