Celts review – bitchy zingers sting at a birthday party in Belgrade

This confident debut feature from Serbian writer-director Milica Tomović fits squarely into a rich but niche subgenre: comedy-dramas that unfold over the course of a party in a cramped apartment where multiple generations squabble and celebrate, revealing submerged secrets as the night wears on. Former communist countries are especially good at this sort of ensemble panorama, perhaps because of the way housing shortages and an assortment of other factors conspired to cramp multigenerational households together in small, brutalist buildings. Meanwhile, the deep bench of acting talent available surely helps when making fluid films like this composed of overlapping, semi-improvised dialogue that push the story forward by subtle degrees.

Celts harks back to the early 1990s, just before Yugoslavia implodes into civil war. In a Belgrade suburb, frustrated and barely coping mother Marijana (Dubravka Kovjanic) organises a party to celebrate her daughter Minja (Katarina Dimic) turning eight. The festivity is themed around Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a franchise then so popular that Minja’s entire class can sing the theme tune in English. Minja’s grandmother (Olga Odanović) struggles to find enough money to buy margarine to make a birthday cake (butter, unfortunately, costs 6 million dinar), while her father Otac (Stefan Trifunovic) borrows a three-legged mutt from the family next door for the day to make up for the fact that they can’t afford a new puppy. As the guests pile into the house, the kids run riot in the living room; the adults – an eclectic mix of fellow parents as well as aunts, uncles and friends – gather in the kitchen to argue about politics, art and the nation’s future.

Tomović and her team take pains to drop period details into the clothes, decor and pop-culture allusions, but you have to wonder if it’s historically plausible that everyone, even in this somewhat arty milieu, would have been so casually accepting and unfazed by Marijana having not one but two gay siblings. Even so, the drama around one of them – stroppy lesbian English teacher Ceca (Jelena Đokić) flaming out when her ex-girlfriend (Nada Šargin) shows up with a new squeeze – is pretty entertaining and makes for some good bitchy zingers. Other story strands are less well developed and towards the end it feels like there are one too many narrative balls in the air; nevertheless the film’s ambition is impressive.

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