An anguished cry from Macedonia, a country that's never registered as even a blip on the cinematic radar, Svetozar Ristovski's debut feature Mirage opens with a Nietzsche quote: "Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of man." So it's clear from the start that this grimly deterministic film will be taking a swan dive into the black, but even so, the depths of its unrelenting pessimism cannot be fathomed. Clearly inspired by My Name Is Ivan, Andrei Tarkovsky's moving portrait of a child spy mired in the World War II wilderness, Mirage attempts the same tale of innocence lost, but Tarkovsky's lyrical touch gives way to a cudgel. Ristovski wants the plight of a bullied moppet to serve as a sweeping metaphor for Macedonian struggle, but his miserablist excesses have the effect of converting realism into a graphic cartoon.
In what must be a nod to fellow Balkan filmmaker Emir Kusturica, the film opens with a drunk marching down the street, accompanied by a full brass ensemble pounding out patriotic anthems, but the neighbors are in no mood for celebrating. Stumbling home after his nightly bout of boozing and gambling with the guys, Vlado Jovanovski completes his destructive routine the next morning, when he nurses his hangover with an ice-bag and heads out to join a hopeless labor strike. Like just about every other character in the film, he directs much of his negative energy toward his sensitive son Marko Kovacevic, who receives regular beatings from schoolyard toughs. Recognizing his talent as a writer, Kovacevic's Bosnia-born teacher Mustafa Nadarevic takes the boy under his wing and offers to sponsor him in a Paris-based poetry competition. Meanwhile, Kovacevic receives tutelage of another sort from a soldier of fortune (Nikola Djuricko) who teaches him to fight back.
Which of these two role models should Kovacevic follow? That Nietzsche quote suggests enough already, but in case there was any doubt, the mercenary's name is "Paris," which underlines the false promise of that destination. Even so, Kovacevic's bloody coming of age takes him so far out of character that he's unrecognizable in the end. Perhaps Ristovski intends to say that this boy, representing the fragile region itself, can only withstand so much abuse before lashing out, but what functions metaphorically doesn't necessarily make sense dramatically. Mirage contains some resonant elements, particularly a backdrop troubled by poverty and violence, and mediated by the vaguely insidious presence of NATO peacekeepers. Leave out the foreground, and a good movie about Macedonia might have emerged.