Venice 2020 review: Oasis (Ivan Ikić)

A bleak but honest look at the emotional world of intellectually disabled teens, Serbian director Ivan Ikić’s sophomore feature Oasis employs the same method as his debut Barbarians: let the central characters of the film be played by its subjects, thereby adding a layer of reality. In Barbarians these were juvenile delinquents, but in Oasis there is the added complication that the main actors are indeed intellectually disabled. One would think that this could lead to a forced story, but in actual fact it turns Oasis into an engaging narrative that expertly shows that while their circumstances are markedly different in a lot of ways these are teens just like any others. That includes raging hormones and highly emotional reactions

A documentary short from 1969 introduces us to an institution near Belgrade where children of very low IQ learn basic skills to be self-sufficient. These children are dubbed ‘The Users’ (which was to be the original title of the film), and these ‘users’ often stay institutionalized their entire lives. Fast forward to the present, where we meet three such children, all teens: Maria (Marijana Novakov), Dragana (Tijana Marković), and Robert (Valentino Zenuni). Maria has just arrived at the facility but is determined to break out and return to her mother whom she, incorrectly, believes still loves her. She quickly forms a bond with Dragana, who then introduces her to Robert, a soft-natured boy who doesn’t speak a word. A complicated love triangle forms, and nature and hormones have their way: the three engage in sexual intercourse, resulting in Maria getting pregnant. This to the dismay of Dragana, who is in love with Robert and longs to be a mother. Her jealousy has dramatic consequences and leads to tragedy for all of them.

A frank depiction of the inner emotions of intellectually disabled teens and how they cope with situations that all teens encounter, Oasis is a humble masterpiece of human observation. Having its main characters portrayed by inhabitants of the real institution where Oasis was filmed adds a layer of honesty and reality to the film. The cinematography, often handheld and overwhelmingly shot in medium and full close-up, adds to the fly-on-the-wall vibe. The neutral, almost cool color grading further enhances the feeling of watching a documentary, and this is exactly what Ikić is going for: documentary film influencing fiction and vice versa, and we see this concept at play here. Stylistically there is overlap between Oasis and the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, in particular their run of films from La Promesse to L’Enfant, and that overlap extends into thematics.

What Oasis acutely portrays is the experience of young people living in institutions like these with all the issues that come with it, issues like self-mutilation and abandonment. It doesn’t shy away from showing a lack of understanding of the consequences of their actions when compared to ‘regular’ teens, but it doesn’t turn it into a freak show or a tear-jerking drama. Its clinical approach allows the humanity and warmth of the three protagonists to show through, letting them break through the barrier of rote sympathy and allowing them to fully characterize themselves in all their complexity. The three leads, especially Novakov, show talent and a canny awareness of their characters’ situation and emotion. Their caretakers, played by professional actors Maruša Majer and Goran Bogdan, convincingly signal the love and patience they have for ‘their’ kids, but also the frustration and the often required distant approach they need to employ in order to be able to simply do this job. All taken together this combines for a film that oozes respect, understanding, and love for its subject matter and its characters. Oasis is an unflinching look at the institutionalization of intellectually disabled people, but admirably without judgement.