THE STORY – A traumatic event – a suicide attempt – creates a rift in a family’s everyday existence. Their lives fundamentally change, as if they are waging a war invisible to everyone else.
THE CAST – Miona Ilov, Danica Ćurčić, Slavko Štimac & Danica Curcic
THE TEAM – Dušan Milić (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 104 Minutes
Terrifying things can happen in the dark, as is seen in Dušan Milić’s “Darkling,” but sometimes the ugliest and most horrifying moments in life are brought out in the light. The Yugoslavian wars in the 1990s consisted of ethnic cleansing, genocide, the displacement of thousands upon thousands of people from the Balkans, and trauma that would last long after the ceasefire. In the later part of the decade, tensions rose between ethnic Serbians and ethnic Albanians, leading to a war that would result in even more pain.
“Darkling” takes place during those volatile times and tells the story of war, mainly through the eyes of a young child and her family, who are among the last Serbian families remaining in Kosovo and Metohija. Milić sets up a terrifying psychological thriller, with a moody atmosphere and technical elements all playing their part, but falls short of fully capturing our emotions. The film spends too much time hyping up a gripping ending that ends up being a letdown.
Young Milica (Miona Ilov) lives with her mother, Vukica (Danica Ćurčić), and grandfather, Milutin (Slavko Štimac), in the wilderness of the mountains in Kosovo. It’s not where they’ve always lived – their previous home was burned down – and it certainly doesn’t feel like a safe, warm place. The inside, where curtains are almost always drawn and furniture is stacked on each other to keep the door securely shut, feels more like a shelter or bunker with its claustrophobic feel. The exterior is also boarded up with wooden planks; it looks like a prison. More than just the less-than-cozy look, there seems to be something that goes bump in the night on this property, which has led to the death of livestock and the torment of this family.
They’re among the few families who live in the area mainly because Milutin hopes his son and son-in-law will return. They went missing after they left for work, and even though the family has filed countless missing person reports with the KFOR peacekeeping troops, represented by two Italian soldiers (Ivan Zerbinati and Flavio Parenti), there still seems to be no hope. But these two soldiers show kindness to the family by charging Vukica’s cell phone and taking Milica to school. However, Milutin is not pleased with how little help they offer over the damaged property and livestock. At school, attendance keeps growing smaller as other families leave the area, leaving Milica to wonder what will happen to her and her loved ones.
“Darkling” excels at setting a foreboding tone. The dimly lit interiors make common household items look terrifying, while the daylight can’t stop trees or other surroundings from sending a weird feeling down your body. The film’s sound work also makes us think the unimaginable is out there terrorizing this family’s farm. On the acting side, everyone plays their part well in showing how miserable or hopeless they feel. Ilov, as our young heroine, does a great job leading the charge and showing us the horrors from a child’s point of view. At the same time, Ćurčić and Štimac deliver on the adult perspective as they experience heartache and desperation in their own ways.
Despite all the elements that work, the script itself doesn’t give much more, particularly with the not-as-thrilling conclusion. While the story increasingly shows things are getting much worse for this family, it also puts itself in a corner by doing that. By suggesting there must be something out there, maybe even something supernatural, audiences will want a big reveal by the end. It’s quite disappointing when it doesn’t come. There’s still impact, though, as audiences are meant to read between the lines and understand this ending metaphorically based on the film’s societal backdrop, but it still doesn’t pack as hard of a punch as it could have. Perhaps it would have landed better if those supernatural elements weren’t as heavily played up.
While “Darkling” makes us fear all that’s happening in the dark, the real-life horrors of war are usually the most frightening elements of all. Despite its less-than-stellar final act, Milić has crafted an atmospheric film that will stay with audiences and leave a haunting impression.