Secret Ingredient

****

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Secret Ingredient
"For Stavreski, its character first and plot second while commentary comes along for the ride, as he focuses on the dad and son relationship at the film's heart."

There have been no shortage of films touching on the state of the health service in eastern Europe in recent years - from documentary Sofia's Last Ambulance through to The Death Of Mr Lazarescu. Gjorce Stavreski takes some of the same ingredients but adds the secret spice of humour to serve up a stealthy charmer, which deservedly took home the Silver Palm Tree award at La Mostra de Valencia.

For Stavreski, its character first and plot second while commentary comes along for the ride, as he focuses on the dad and son relationship at the film's heart. Train mechanic Vele (Blagoj Veselinov) can't seem to get a break. Still living at home, his dad Sazdo (Anastas Tanovski) is dying from lung cancer and, thanks to not being paid by his railroad employers for months, Vele can't afford the pain medication needed. His plight is shown to be endemic in the country in an early scene in which a homeopathic 'healer' attempts to sell Vele and his pal Dzem (Aksel Mehmet) what amounts to a bottle of water as a queue of people queue hopefully outside. This is a place where, it seems, even shotguns don't work.

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The dad and son's relationship is refreshingly authentic, with both actors on top form. Sazdo may be dying but it doesn't stop him from being irritating, even if Vele is trying hard not to let him get under his skin. Stavreski carefully spoons a back story into this well-realised combination of love and frustration, guilt and sadness, ensuring he keeps us on the emotional hook.

Lady Luck, it turns out, hasn't quite forgotten about Vele. When chance brings the police to the railyard with the instruction to search a train for drugs. Finding them, on impulse, Vele sees an opportunity to solve his financial problems, and takes them home. And, when a brief foray into dealing ends in a world of pain - an episode that illustrates Stavreski's sharp control of both tension and humour, as we feel empathy and fear for Vele even as we are laughing at his ineptitude - he decides the best way forward is to use the marijuana as pain relief. The only problem is that Sazdo has a very old-school no-tolerance attitude to drugs, leading his son to create a space cake and concoct a story about a healer he has discovered.

As Sazdo begins to perk up - and Stavreski strays into forgiveable fairy tale territory here - trouble starts to loom, thanks to gangsters who want their drugs back and the rumour of Sazdo's improvement spreading. This film may be part drama, part crime thriller and part social commentary but Stavreski blends them in a way that marries them beautifully and he cares about every character not just his central pairing, with even comic sidekick Dzem given his own small but satisfying story arc. The same can be said of a brief foray into Vele's love life, which though initially seeming a little tacked on, still finds its way to a poignant climax. Stavreski's film ultimately works the same neat trick as Vele's cake - it may look as though it contains regular ingredients, but it leaves us on a high.

Reviewed on: 28 Oct 2018
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Secret Ingredient packshot
A mechanic steals a stash of marijuana to use as a cure for his dad... only to find himself chased by dealers and hounded by people who think he's a healer.

Festivals:

Valencia 2018

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