A young man wakes on a bench in a pedestrian square in the middle of an unnamed continental European city, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Before he can make any sense of his predicament, a group of four sharp-suited and white-masked assassins close in on him and shoot him dead. But he immediately wakes on the same bench, alive once more and back at the beginning of the same life-threatening scenario. Trying to control an overwhelming sense of panic and confusion, the murder victim struggles to make sense of what is happening to him and looks for a way to break the repeating cycle.
While Hollywood’s production factories continue to pump out a never-ending supply of mega-buck formulaic sci-fi, it is in the work of the micro-budget European indie fringe that many of the more interesting and experimental genre work continues to be found. Incarnation (Inkarnacija to give it its original title) is an excellent example of a group of filmmakers’ determination to produce a different sort of fantasy thriller with a sensibility and identity all its own.
The film is the debut feature of Serbian writer-director Filip Kovačević, much of it shot in central Belgrade (seemingly amidst the hubbub of unsuspecting shoppers and tourists).
It’s all but impossible to describe how the plot of Incarnation unfolds without spoiling the enjoyment that comes from the viewer sharing the main protagonist’s bewilderment at the inexplicable position he finds himself in. But what it is safe to reveal is that the writers are determined to keep the audience guessing for as long as possible, and not surrender to the expectations of the multiplex for immediate gratification and easy explanations. This is a story shaped by paranoia, existential angst and disconcerting shifts in perception. Kovačević wants the audience to embrace the uncertainty and go with it, as a series of bizarre clues and strange encounters suggest possible explanations for the man’s murderous conundrum.
The result is a movie that is intriguing, sometimes baffling, but rarely predictable. Combined with some excellent set design, first-rate cinematography by Uros Milutinovic (who likes to film the many chase sequences from amidst the runners) and well chosen and eerie locations all enhance the film’s sense of style.
In the lead role of the hunted man, Djordjevic delivers the right mix of distress and determination, but this is a film driven more by the realisation of an idea than by performance. Kovačević maintains an unsettling dreamlike atmosphere throughout, contrasting the everyday normality of the main urban setting with the victim’s disconnection from the world around him - as he tries time and again to escape his fate.
As the story relocates to the barren countryside beyond the city limits, the film moves towards its most surreal moments before some surprising hidden truths are uncovered in the final act, back on the main streets.
Not every plot thread is tied up in the film’s finale, and much is left open to audience interpretation - which may irritate some viewers. But Incarnation is the kind of intelligent, confident European genre filmmaking that rewards the attention it demands.
INCARNATION / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: FILIP KOVAČEVIĆ / SCREENPLAY: FILIP KOVAČEVIĆ, MASA SENICIC, IVAN STANCIC / STARRING: STOJAN DJORDJEVIC, DACA VIDOSAVLJEVIC, STEN ZENDOR / RELEASE: OUT NOW