Rites of passage, teenage girls in small towns, strict and uncomprehending parents: We know the drill, yet few films riffing on the subject get the mood and ambiguities as right as “Looking for Venera.” Debuting feature director Norika Sefa exhibits exceptional talent in bringing subtlety and depth to characters as well as the overall atmosphere of a town in Kosovo, ensuring the story is grounded in a particular place while making her protagonist a readily identifiable, highly sympathetic young woman. Impressively shot by fast-rising DP Luis Armando Arteaga and anchored by richly multi-layered performances, the film deservedly won a special jury award in Rotterdam and should get significant attention throughout the coming year.
The town where Venera (Kosovare Krasniqi) lives is nothing special to look at, set among hills made bare by harsh winters, ugly substandard constructions and the recent war that decimated the adult male population. With no parks, internet or after-school activities, there’s not much to do, and tradition-bound customs continue to exert a stranglehold on adult social networks. Unlike many of her friends, Venera still has her father, Luan (Basri Lushtaku), but he’s brooding and unaffectionate, incapable of giving emotional sustenance to anyone in the family. Her mother Nora (Erjona Kakelli) keeps to the house, looking after her two youngest children and mother-in-law (Fatushe Nushi).
Nora’s joie-de-vivre shriveled up years ago, and she’s too trapped to think about ways of helping her daughter out of the stultifying patriarchal cycle. Venera’s English lessons are seen as some kind of way toward advancement, but it’s an empty accomplishment since there’s nothing for her to do with the knowledge. Though the extracurricular classes are seen as a path to betterment, the town culture blocks anywhere those paths might lead.
To her surprise, Venera is taken under wing by her peer Dorina (Rozafa Çelaj), a free-spirited young woman already introduced to alcohol, sex and the heady sway a sexualized teen can have over the world. Dorina is an expert in telling adults what they want to hear while doing exactly as she pleases, and the giddy, rule-breaking power she exudes captivates the far shier and inexperienced Venera. Soon they’re going to the only bar in town and Dorina’s encouraging an attraction between Venera and bartender Gent (Tristan Halilaj). A concert’s coming up, and attending would be just the kind of rite of passage Venera longs for, but her father’s cracking down on her behavior and only by using her classmate Nol (Bleon Monolli) can she get out of the house and have her rendezvous.
Sefa peppers the film with stand-out moments revealing far more about interior lives than any expository dialogue could have achieved. Memorable examples include when Dorina is unexpectedly grabbed off-camera by her boyfriend Lum (Shend Miftari), and we only hear her sounds of pleasure as Venera awkwardly looks to the side. Or when Venera returns home from the concert but before her father gets back, and she gets her mother to dance with her to the radio. Nora literally lets her hair down, bouncing around the room, whipping around her loose locks, feeling the joy of release and sharing her daughter’s youthful energy: It’s a superb scene, heartbreaking in its glimpse of the spark that once must have filled Nora with life, long since deprived of oxygen.
Before then, we barely had any glimpse into Nora’s character, largely defined by drudge work and the large bags under her eyes, but Kakelli springs to life in that instant and everything is revealed. Krasniqi is front and center almost every moment so has more to work with, and the way she fully inhabits the role, beautifully transforming from timid girl to defiant young woman, has a satisfying empowerment. The entire cast brings an unselfconscious depth of understanding that contributes to a picture of a community trapped in an antiquated modality, aware of change coming from outside yet too insular and traumatized to embrace other ways of life.
Similar to any number of Romanian films, mealtimes and eating scenes in general punctuate the drama and allow for a visual sense of the personal dynamics at play. Especially notable is the way Sefa blocks her scenes, using bodies almost like pillars or trees that tower over Venera and crowd her out. Cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga (Marcelo Martinessi’s “The Heiresses”) masterfully composes these claustrophobic images, contrasting them with looser movements expressive of the freedoms Dorina and Venera are looking to grasp.