These Are the Rules (2014)

Pain, anguish and confusion are at the heart of this Croatian film about two low-income parents who are incapable of coping with tragedy. 

These Are the RulesCroatia
3*

Director:
Ognjen Sviličić

Screenwriter:
Ognjen Sviličić

Director of Photography:
Crystel Fournier

Running time: 75 minutes

Original title: Takva su pravila

Perhaps the best way to create tension is to have a character ask those questions that we, the viewers, are also thinking but that we know cannot be answered, at least not by those in the scene. In Croat director Ognjen Sviličić’s absolutely heart-wrenching These Are the Rules, a mother and father have to deal as best they know how with the sudden death of their only son, Tomica (Hrvoje Vladisavljević). The mother, Maja, keeps asking very basic questions that the father, Ivo, cannot answer, and this frustration ultimately leads to an arbitrary act of catharsis for them, but not for us.

The 17-year-old Tomica is consistently unwilling to share his life with his parents, who have grown used to him being holed up in his room. He gets beaten up and chooses to hide his bruises from his parents, especially the overprotective Maja, but he eventually relents and lets them take him to the doctor, even though he initially scoffs at his mother’s suggestion of getting stitches. But soon he falls into a coma and then into an eternal sleep, and we quickly come to share the parents’ sense of despair at this predicament they are in because their son sought to shield them from what seemed like unnecessary worries.

The rest of the film is relentlessly bleak, and the dread that starts to set in following Tomica’s hospitalisation at the end of the first act is easily on par with the emotion evoked by a similar plotline in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. In the case of Sviličić’s film, however, there is no dramatic breather provided by cutting away to other stories, and the knot in the pit of our stomachs never goes away.

Ivo and Maja are low-income Croats living on the outskirts of Zagreb. Ivo is a bus driver, while Maja appears to be unemployed. They reveal themselves to be out of their depth when it comes to not only handling their son’s secretive behaviour but also searching for meaning following a tragedy like the one they are thrust into when their son passes out while drawing a bath. Sometimes, the setting is to blame (overcrowded hospital waiting rooms, especially, as well as medical personnel who blatantly – and in this case, fatally – disregard the urgency of their patients’ conditions), but at other times they simply do not have the experience to ask the right questions. Their lack of engagement is not directly to blame for their son’s untimely demise, but it makes the process of coping so much more difficult, because there are no satisfying answers when they don’t know which questions to ask or whom to ask for help.

It is entirely understandable that the events leave them in shock, and the father’s decision to tell people things are not particularly serious is a lie whose purity of purpose the viewer should recognise (and sympathise with) immediately. But his and his wife’s inaction in the face of trauma leave us pining for help to arrive. They visit the police station to report the attack on their son, but instead of explaining the severity of their situation, they relate the events calmly to the officer and leave without any real prospect of a serious investigation. The same happens at the hospital and at the morgue, where they receive life-changing news without any detailed explanation or advice from a professional. Their response is always either to be inactive or to talk around the problem by asking questions that are inconsequential.

Despite the director’s well-chosen approach of frustrating the viewer with traumatic stasis, however, the climax is wholly unsatisfying because it plays out more like a dream than the grim reality full of obstacles we have come to expect. While the violence in the final act makes sense on paper, it is committed in a void: a public space that someone has no witnesses that could incriminate the aggressor. It is a fantasy, and its inclusion in the film goes against the pain and confusion at the core of the film.

Viewed at the Bratislava International Film Festival 2016.