Karlovy Vary 2021 review: Roots (Tea Lukač)

In the press notes that accompany Roots, the excessively modest debut feature by Tea Lukač, a vague and rather ambitious phrase is repeated multiple times: the film is described as an “anthropological probe” and is said to be a “conceptual” work. The “concept” quickly becomes evident as the film is entirely made up of long static takes (each lasting for about eight minutes or so) that depict the back seat of a car traveling on rural roads. There are seven such takes in total, most of them featuring some sort of conversation or monologue, and images of uninhabited nature separate each driving sequence from the next one. Given the fact that all takes in the film portray the same vicinity (a town called Dvor, whose total population is less than six thousand) one can perhaps find some “anthropological” details about the region or its people in the footage as well. But even at the end of the 80-minute ride it remains unclear what this so-called cinematic “probe” really investigates. The title of the film suggests some degree of interest in abstract and personal themes like belonging, family, home and so forth. The inescapable shadow of the recent war that scarred millions in this region points to a more political or historical inquiry with macro-level implications. The visual emphasis on the surrounding mountains and rivers, the repetitive structure of the film, and the selection of passengers from all ages open up yet another possibility: likely a study of universal themes such as the cycle of life, aging, or the passing of time. Unfortunately Roots does not commit to any of these strands, failing to offer any fresh ideas and feeling disappointingly disjointed as a feature-length effort.

Roots is beautifully shot (though one can find equally impressive views of nature among the desktop wallpaper options on practically any computer) and has some warmth, particularly in the opening episode about a group of children and a later sequence with singing women. It also has the potential to work better as an interactive installation piece, with each long take presented as a loop on a separate screen. But as a feature film there is hardly anything distinctive here. The conversations are not particularly insightful or touching, the long takes are barely serviceable for the most part, the staging is too stiff and lacks originality. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Roots is the fluid way in which Lukač navigates the territory between documentary and fiction. While the film has the unpolished and naturalistic look of an observational documentary, the conversations are staged, placing the film in the domain of fiction. But even this ambiguity feels too familiar and is not explored further in ways that could possibly question the slippery nature of truth.

The concept may remind some viewers of the great Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, especially his 2002 film Ten, which similarly consists of multiple conversations all confined in a moving car. Ten was an early landmark that played with the possibilities of the then-emerging digital format and had a clearly defined thematic axis as the conversations in that film revolved around gender. Roots goes for a more poetic, contemplative effect than Kiarostami’s socially conscious work. However, it has neither the daring sense of innovation nor the clarity of purpose that characterized Ten despite the basic concept shared between the two films.

Apparently Roots is a deeply personal film for director Lukač, who considers Dvor her hometown. She is very familiar with the cultural multiplicity of the region, knows the struggles of the people of Dvor, and has a fondness for the stories her characters recount. But what counts as an intimate memory for one can sometimes come across as nothing more than a forgettable, insubstantial story for another. The seven takes that constitute the bulk of Roots tell stories of domestic violence or dangerous hornets, or even depict the empty back seat for several minutes (in an attempt to visualize “absence”). But when seen in succession, they unfortunately do not create a particularly meaningful or sophisticated sociocultural mosaic.