Eastern Promises, aka Tallinn’s Black Nights Film Festival: Secret Ingredient
“I’ll work something out,” says Vele (Blagoj Veselinov), as he refuses the spare change his boss offers him in lieu of an overdue salary, in Gjorce Stavreski’s fulminating debut feature, Secret Ingredient (2017). A thirty-something mechanic from Skopje, Macedonia, Vele has lost his mother and brother to a car accident, and now spends his days repairing trains and looking after his bedridden and cancer-stricken father, Sazdo (Anastas Tanovski). Money is tight, the medications cost too much and the cancer has already metastasized. But upon discovering a bag of drugs hidden by local thugs inside a train, things take an unexpectedly brighter turn. After a disastrous attempt at selling the narcotics to pay for the meds, Vele resorts to baking. Unbeknownst to the strongly anti-cannabis Sazdo, the young man starts feeding his father a weed cake that eventually (miraculously) makes the cancer go away.
The eponymous ingredient notwithstanding, Secret Ingredient, which premiered at Tallinn’s 21st Black Nights Film Festival, is not a stoner comedy. Weed serves as a deus ex machina rescuing Sazdo from an atrociously painful death, but the real secret in this rollicking debut is Stavreski’s ability to craft a life-affirming tale in which laughs coexist with bitter social reality and characters are not simply portrayed as victims of a system they can never defeat, but are rather given a voice of their own.
For while there’s no denying that Vele lives in what people around him describe as a purgatory, “where people die for no reason,” the young man boasts a sense of stubbornness that stands at odds with the despair embraced by those around him. “I’ll work something out” is a recurring line that Vele delivers with a dignified, defiant look reminiscent of the characters populating De Sica’s neorealist masterpieces, from Bicycle Thieves to Umberto D.—the kind of tone you’d expect from someone who has little left to fight for, but possesses unshakable courage and dignity.
And while Skopje may well be a concrete jungle filled with post-soviet faux-baroque buildings, Dejan Dimeski’s cinematography captures Vele’s world as melancholically beautiful, especially when father and son embark on a road trip to the family’s old holiday retreat and Vele stares silently at his parents’ old trail, or during a date with an ex girlfriend the two spend watching the Vardar river flow through Skopje.
There are some wonderful moments that exude peace amidst tragedy, à la Mike Mills’s Beginners, yet they also serve as a powerful reminder that the pessimism embraced by people around Vele is just as cancerous as his father’s disease. Toward the end of the date, as Vele complains the country will never move forward, his ex mocks him for embracing an unnerving go-to fatalism. “I know what follows,” she tells him with a disapproving look: “This country is a madhouse, the best ones left, everyone’s a thief… but you’ve got your own problems to deal with.”
As Stavreski makes clear from the very first scenes, if not a solution to problems, laughter can nevertheless be a powerful antidote. Though tragic, Secret Ingredient can be delightfully funny, courtesy of a wonderful trio: Vele’s ever-sarcastic cousin Dzhem (Aksel Mehmet) and his two mates, Veselinov and Tanovski. There are comic scenes, such as confronting a self-proclaimed healer selling magic water for 25 euros a glass, Vele’s father baking his own magic cake, and the climax in which Vele is worshipped as a healer himself—a crescendo of mass hysteria that brings to mind the best of Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Yet Stavreski skillfully circumvents any over-the-top moments. Secret Ingredient does not rely on cheap laughs; its humor is more understated, elicited by small and naïve gestures, as when Sazdo ends up fearing the weed cake will turn him into a junkie (“will I be shooting stuff with needles now?”) or when Vele tries to imitate the swagger of more established dealers, giving customers disproportionally big bags of weed.
The chuckles are often inscribed into the dysfunctional father-son relationship underpinning Stavreski’s debut. Sazdo is one of the crustiest characters to have appeared on the big screen in recent history. A cantankerous personality on par with Bruce Dern’s Woody Grant in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska and the late Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky, he spitefully reminds Vele he never got over the fact that his son did not go to college, and hails Vele’s deceased brother, Riki, as his smarter, favorite kid. The soothing feeling that sinks in as father and son confront each other and then sit by the lake that used to host their family holidays to laugh at their own stubbornness is a testament to Stavreski’s exceptional writing and directing skills. It is in scenes like these that Secret Ingredient works best: for all the weed cakes, maladroit thugs and witty political satire, this is the story of a father who has lost an interest in carrying on living, and a son who must convince him to begin again.