Looking for Venera

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Men are mostly lurking presences rather than characters in Looking for Venera, Norika Sefa’s film which she says is about showing the world that life in Kosovo isn’t all about poverty and exotica. Sitting in London, it looks pretty poor and exotic to me.

Sefa opens with a shot of a teenage female having pounding sex with a man in the woods, observed sight unseen by another teenage female. Later we learn that the young woman having sex is Dorina (Rozafa Celaj) and the one watching is Venera (Kosovare Krasniqi). They are not friends, but after Venera pulls Dorina aside to quiz her about what she was up to on her back among the leaves they become bosom buddies, much to the consternation of Venera’s mother, who sees Dorina as the archetypal bad influence.

Venera is another name for Venus, the goddess of love, and Looking for Venera is about the youthful arrival in the world of encounters with men – some carnal, others not – against the exotic (sorry) background of a small, isolated village where generations all live together hugger-mugger and a young woman’s sexuality is tightly patrolled until, at a moment agreed by their elders, she is parcelled up and married off to some eligible young man.

Venera watches English-language TV with the subtitles covered up, she takes English classes. We sense that she has other plans for herself. As does Dorina, though hers extend not much further than getting kissed or fondled or penetrated by whichever hot boy she fancies – Dorina is the sort of young woman that young men follow through the village in a pack, like hounds after a fox.

And that’s the entire film – Venera getting to know Dorina, Dorina leading Venera astray, into bars and whatnot, Venera tentatively tasting the forbidden fruit herself and the family suspecting the worst and doing their utmost to keep a lid on her “activities”.

Dorian and Venera surrounded by their elders
Dorina and Venera just want to have a good time

In one sense Sefa is right about de-exoticising Kosovo – the bit of the world that broke away from Serbia and went to war to proclaim its independence. This is a universal story about growing up and the loss of innocence and many of the scenes will ring painfully/amusingly true, like Dorina and Venera discussing how you kiss – mouth open? How much tongue?

Meanwhile, an older generation of women in the village lead disappointed lives. They married too young, had too many kids, yielded too much to men, became domestic drudges. This, we sense, is the end of all that. Venera is the future, no matter how much the men grumble about “foreign influences we don’t need”.

Celaj (Dorinda) was already an actor but most people we see on the screen are not, including first-timer Krasniqi, who skilfully holds the entire film together with a deliberately guarded performance – this is a young woman who feels stifled. The other performances are universally excellent, though Sefa’s intensely intimate, up-close camera relegates almost everyone apart from Venera and Dorina to the margin, with Venera’s mother and grandmother (Sefa’s own grandmother) making occasional interventions, largely to scold or tut.

It’s tonally and visually a warm film, shot by Argentinian DP Luis Armando Arteaga (who has worked with Claude Lelouch, among others), and is composed of long static takes with camera positions that are idiosyncratic, even deliberately wrong. Sometimes we can only see the midriff of the person talking, as if the camera has slipped and no one has noticed. It adds to the sense of life being caught on the fly, and forces the viewer to lean into the action, reinforcing the feeling of intimacy.

Meanwhile, out in the village, boys roam the streets in packs, staking their claim, while men grumble together in corners, scowl together in bars, complain together as they bodge together a DIY job, wilfully conspiring in their own lack of preparedness for the future, which is Venera-shaped. A subtle and powerful film.

Looking for Venera – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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