Sarajevo 2022 review: Riders (Dominik Mencej)

“Crafting a first film with both a clear personal touch as well as intriguing cinematic language, Dominik Mencej announces himself as an exciting new voice of Slovenian film.”

Director and co-writer Dominik Mencej walks an intriguing line between the specific and the universal in his feature film debut Riders, starting with the title itself. The original title Jezdeca is a Slovenian word used to describe riding an animal rather than a vehicle, but while the distinction is lost in translation, the film’s most explicit cinematic reference is even more obvious. After stumbling upon the classic film Easy Rider, young Anton (Petja Labovic) becomes obsessed with the idea of leaving his small village on a motorbike. His plan depends on his best friend Tomaž (Timon Šturbej). Anton is going to need his skills to transform their small mopeds into proper motorcycles, but he also insists on them going on this trip together. Tomaž initially resists but their friendship dynamic leaves no doubt that Anton will be able to convince him.

This somewhat uneasy relationship and the poetic countryside atmosphere manage to maintain attention during the film’s somewhat formulaic first act, its plot points clearly derived from the road movie cinematic tradition. The boys meet and come into conflict with older motorcycle rider Peter (Nikola Kojo) and they also pick up Ana (Anja Novak), a fiery young woman escaping from a convent. Their first destination, capital city Ljubljana – a symbol of a fuller life than their small village can offer – naturally turns out to be a disappointment. Ana convinces the young riders to continue their journey to the seaside. Tomaž once again resists, Anton once again overpowers him.

The love triangle set-up turns out to be somewhat deceiving, fortunately, as flashbacks start to offer us more insight into the boys’ family histories. Masterfully edited by Andrej Nagode and Matic Drakulić, the film’s deviations are more than mere revelations. The audience is gradually permitted into the inner psyche of both Anton and Tomaž as we discover the sources of their inner torment. Their specific situations remain vague, but our understanding of their characters is deepened enough to command attention throughout the rest of the film. Clearly, this trip is bound to finally start the coming-of-age for both.

Anton unwittingly finds a father figure in Peter, the biker he initially antagonized. Peter recognizes himself in the young man’s anger and irritability and uses this understanding to try to hint at a path in life that would save him from self-destruction. Tomaž, on the other hand, continues to struggle with his religious upbringing, troubled by visions of Mary and memories of abandoning his mother just before Easter. There is no clear resolution to either of these topics. The film’s take on faith is particularly interesting as it provides both comfort and guidance to Tomaž while at the same time burdening him with guilt. Just as believable, however, is the view of Anton, who cannot grasp his friend’s faith or understand his homesickness.

Therein lies the power of Riders. Bustling with ideas, some of the topics may be painted with broad strokes but the film eventually manages to compact its ambition into a cohesive whole. As the road trip comes to an end, our lead characters have been changed forever but they still struggle with the same questions and the same restlessness. There is a sense of melancholy and nostalgia to the film’s visuals, softly counterpointing the tension of the central friendship. Crafting a first film with both a clear personal touch as well as intriguing cinematic language, Dominik Mencej announces himself as an exciting new voice of Slovenian film. Riders premiered at the Sarajevo Film Festival to a very warm reception, which I believe will mark the beginning of a successful festival run.