How on earth should you react when something terrible happens to your child? On screen, tragedy is often met with a big explosion of grief, characters crying, screaming and beating the floor in impotent suffering. While these are all understandable responses, the truth for many is likely to be much more subdued as Croatian drama These Are the Rules demonstrates. An intriguing film, it takes a step too far in the other direction until it fatally mutes its subject matter.
Ivo (Emir Hadzihafizbegovic) and Maja (Jasna Zalica) are by all accounts a conventional couple. They live in an apartment in Zagreb that could do with a bit of DIY; the stove buttons jam and a door handle falls off when used, but it’s otherwise comfortable. He works as a bus driver and she keeps the house in check. They’re used to their high school son Tomica (Hrvoje Vladisavljevic) coming in slightly late but the middle of the night is a step too far. Annoyance turns to worry the next morning when he finally emerges with a badly bruised face having received a serious beating.
Ognjen Svilicic’s film focuses not on Tomica but instead on the impact it has on his parents as they try to reach consensus on appropriate next steps. When his injuries take a turn for the worse, they are left even more at sea, forced to navigate waters no one is ever really equipped to deal with. Both Hadzihafizbegovic and Zalica underplay their roles to the right degree. Instead of hysterics, blank disbelief is their default setting. When bad news comes over the phone, Maja seems unable to comprehend while Ivo simply refuses to believe it.
This pattern is repeated throughout. Tomica is rarely seen and the only other characters to pop in are his girlfriend and the occasional medical or law enforcement professional. It’s just Ivo and Maja pottering around, bickering over mundane household items and failing to come to terms with the situation they’ve fallen into the middle of.
Svilicic, who also wrote the screenplay, deserves praise for pursuing a subdued version of grief but he eventually moves too far in the other direction. It’s not just emotion but also urgency that ends up toned down. When Ivo and Maja receive shocking news, they react like they’ve just heard the weather forecast. Even worse is the decision to initiate an entirely unnecessary revenge sub-plot. It’s completely out of keeping with everything that’s gone before and plays as if they were struggling for an ending and threw in the first thing that might add a little dynamism.
There are moments of interest in These Are the Rules but it’s a film that got lost after the concept stage. It explores intriguing territory; just not very well.
Director: Ognjen Svilicic
Writer: Ognjen Svilicic
Stars: Ljubomir Bandovic, Emir Hadzihafizbegovic, Mira Banjac
Country: Croatia, France, Serbia, Republic of Macedonia