Foreign Oscar Entry Review: Agon

Agon, Albania's Submission for the Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. U.S. : None Yet. Production Company: Elefant Films

Intercultural relationships tend to be a tricky affair. There are certain idiosyncratic features pertinent to a particular group of people that may not be instantly acceptable for nonmembers of said community. Preconceptions can certainly be poisonous and dangerously hurtful, especially when two people wish to join their lives despite being from contrasting backgrounds. Unknown to most outsiders, the crude reality experienced by the Albanian Diaspora is at the core of Agon (which translates to “Sunrise”), Robert Budina’s first feature. Crafted like a crime thriller, the film is permeated with potent observations on immigration, ethnic discrimination, and above all, on remaining true to one’s origins.

Well-intentioned Saimir (Marvin Tafaj) is an Albanian man who, like many, moved to seemingly more prosperous Greece to work. Living in Thessaloniki, he fell in love with his now fiancé Elektra (Isavela Kogevina), a local woman whose father, Nikos (Antonis Kafetzopoulos), runs an automotive repair shop where he works. His ties back home however are still deeply ingrained in him which will prove to be a problem with his father-in-law’s ideologies and prejudices. Illegally smuggled across the border, Vini (Guliem Kotorri) , Saimir’s younger brother, has come to stay with the soon-to-be married couple. Resentful as he thinks his older brother is ashamed of his roots, Vini can’t keep any of the jobs Saimir finds him, not only due to his lack of skill but because of the stigma Albanians carry within Greek society.

Soon Vini, thanks to crooked family friend Beni (Laertis Vasiliou), finds himself involved with the leader of a prostitution ring named Keno (Xhevdet Jashari), a ruthless power-hungry criminal. Winning a bet against him, troublemaker Vini gets access to his brothel where he falls for exploited Majlinda (Eglantina Cenomeri), who is in turn Keno’s most beloved girl. Back at his apartment, Saimir tries to balance yet another unexpected happening, his uncle’s entire family has come to stay with them. Welcoming at first, the cultural differences become too much to handle for Elektra. Subsequently after Vini saves Majlinda’s life by hiding her from Keno, all the unfortunate circumstances intersect and come to crumble the two hapless brothers’ hopes and expectations.

Disassociated from the closely integrated Albanian community in Greece, Saimir is trying to adapt to his new environment. Persuaded by his new family, he agreed to be baptized into Christianity and changed his name, both signs that he is willing to forget where he comes from. To his very family-oriented compatriots he is denying who he is, an unforgivable offense in their eyes. Yet, at heart he is still the same guy they know, but is divided between them and the life he wants to build with Elektra. Vini, on the other hand, wants to paint but the precarious economic conditions that force him to leave his homeland won’t allow him to pursue that passion. Essentially, the brotherly bond between them and their opposite approach to their current situation clearly demonstrates the dilemmas faced by others in their place. Should one refuse to assimilate in order to honor one’s heritage or is it more convenient to blend with the dominant majority? At the most decisive instance in their joint journey, Vini denounces his brother's actions with the puncturing phrase “I don’t leave the ones I love behind,” condensing in one line the sense of longing the story conveys.

Budina’s debut is a surprisingly revelatory work that discerns numerous thematic elements in a seamless manner. He delivers a story that, despite being specific to Albanian-Greek relations, is universally relevant. Breathtaking vistas of the Greek shore collide with the gruesome underworld of illicit activity that rules the streets Thanks to this juxtaposition and the splendid acting, the characters’ tribulations serve as a frank reflection of a communal experience that expands far beyond its running time. Agon is a film that deserves to be seen outside of its homeland. Tense and rivetingly engaging, it is compelling cinematic statement on the search for identity while fighting to thrive in a foreign land.

Read more about all the 76 Best Foreign Language Film Submission for the 2014 Academy Awards

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