Ljubljana 2022 review: Safe Place (Juraj Lerotić)

“This is a personal story told with such restraint that the audience is allowed to come to their own conclusions about each aspect of the film, from the characters’ actions to the big questions it asks.”

It’s not uncommon for directors to look to their own life stories for inspiration when making films, some using them as starting points, others fully reimagining certain episodes. Very few, however, have told their most personal stories quite as openly as Juraj Lerotić does in Safe Place. Taking place in just one day, his feature debut depicts the aftermath of his brother’s suicide attempt and the efforts by his mother and himself to assure he gets proper care while struggling to understand what happened. The film premiered in the Filmmakers of the Present section of the Locarno Film Festival, winning several awards, and has since played multiple other festivals, winning the main prize both in Sarajevo and now in Ljubljana. It is also Croatia’s International Film Oscar submission.

The opening shot of Safe Place is deceptively calm as we observe a Zagreb neighbourhood for some time before we see Bruno (director Juraj Lerotić playing a version of himself) breaking open an apartment building entrance. Having sensed something was off when talking to his brother Damir (Goran Marković) on the phone, he rushed to his place to find his suspicions confirmed – Damir has cut himself on the wrist and neck. The emergency care unit arrives quickly and assures Bruno that Damir will be fine. The rest of the staff involved in the matter, however, hardly have a kind word for anyone.

Bruno is taken aback by the behavior of the policemen, asking questions without any regard for Damir’s well-being. Something similar occurs several more times, cumulatively bringing the audience to a point of complete indignation. The point Lerotić is making with these interactions is substantial. The police are not supposed to act as antagonists, and they are clearly just doing their job. But there is an alarming lack of sympathy, humanity even, in their handling of the matter. Proper procedure seems to always be the priority. The film is sharp in its criticism while also allowing room for reflection, if only by repetition – this is not a problem of certain individuals but rather of a system too firmly set on following the rules to allow for any compassion.

Similarly enraging is a scene where Bruno and his mother attempt to discuss Damir’s treatment with the hospital’s head psychiatrist. Having only received them due to connections anyway, the doctor regards them with nothing but exasperation and arrogance. When the mother requests the name of the medication Damir is being given, he refuses to answer. Again, no judgment is passed on the quality of his work but his behaviour towards concerned family members is abhorrent. Most audience members from the region and beyond will be able to instantly recognize this toxic dynamic of a person in a position of power, working in a respected field, interpreting any questions as distrust and refusing to elaborate. They know best, and ordinary people have no business even inquiring about it.

Social commentary is a vital component of Safe Place but at its core, this is first and foremost a family story. Bruno and his mother are torn on so many levels. They want to provide Damir with proper care and watch over him while also making sure he’s comfortable and giving him room to breathe. Each decision they must make is a tough one and by being put into this position, they are denied time to process their own feelings. By focusing on the troubled individual’s family members, Safe Place invites obvious comparison with Florian Zeller’s The Son, but this is a very different and much stronger film.

What perhaps makes the biggest difference is its depiction of Damir. He is essentially a supporting character, and the reason for his suicidal tendencies is never made clear. Bruno repeats again and again to every policeman or nurse who asks: no, nothing has happened to him, he was never like this before, all this just began recently. Watching Damir, however, this is hardly believable. Goran Marković delivers an exquisite performance, providing us with a sense of his character’s backstory just with the look in his eyes. This is a man clearly suffering but as he succumbs to delusion and paranoia, it seems that the root of his problems has not only been lost to him as well, but also isn’t necessarily relevant.

Safe Place touches upon a question inherently connected with mental illness and suicide attempts: “Why?” An important question, for sure, and one that does need to be at least partially answered on the road to recovery, but one that is too often asked for the wrong reasons. We struggle with things we don’t understand, and it is human nature to look for the answers but in a situation like this, “why” is a self-serving question. It demands an explanation, a simple one if possible, so the person asking it can be absolved of responsibility. The answer, however, is hardly ever simple, and its complexities should be uncovered over time, certainly not at the peak of illness. Bruno wants to know the answer as well but is not insistent on getting it out of his brother.

Not answering the question exemplifies what I consider the film’s greatest strength: ambiguity. Lerotić cleverly avoids making any big statements or conclusions. This is not a film about depression or suicide. This is a personal story told with such restraint that the audience is allowed to come to their own conclusions about each aspect of the film, from the characters’ actions to the big questions it asks. We are guided throughout by the director’s formalistic precision which constantly raises a sense of claustrophobia. Director of photography Marko Brdar makes good use of the suffocating interiors of hospitals and police stations, as well as of Croatia’s urban architecture, its drab colours informing the general look of the film.

A glaring misstep occurs early on in the film as Bruno talks to his brother as if he had not survived the suicide attempt. They discuss the making of the film and it feels like Lerotić does not completely trust his story’s potency, or perhaps its believability, relying on an awkwardly inserted meta moment to inform the audience that these events really happened. Otherwise, this is very confident work, especially for a first-time director, his artistic flourishes generally serving the difficult story well. With Sonja Tarokić’s The Staffroom also playing at the festival and making a strong impact, the future of Croatian cinema looks very promising.

On a personal note, I continue to be disappointed at how many recent films depict mental health care as a negative experience, hospitalization as imprisonment, medicine as poison and psychiatrists as heartless monsters. Naturally, such a view provides the story with conflict and drama. Mental illness, however, remains alarmingly stigmatized and misunderstood. I truly hope some more filmmakers find stories to tell that depict psychiatry as helpful and lifesaving as it very often is. Safe Place, however, is not – and unfortunately could never be – one of those stories.