Reviews Short Narrative

Erik (2023) – 3 stars

Director: David Kodheli

Writer: David Kodheli

Cast: Roerd Toce, Vlein Bejri, Xhulia Musagalliu

Running time: 23mins

Does a movie have to have any meaning beyond its moving pictures? Do we need to take anything away with us that is more than the sum total of the images that make up the work? The thoughts occurred to me after watching David Kodheli’s sumptuous, in many ways brilliantly crafted, short narrative Erik.

The common-sense answers would be yes, of course – but quite often bad judgements can be justified in the name of common sense.

Kodheli opens proceedings with a gorgeous shot, a glass of water limpid and almost iridescent – piano music plays as an effervescent tablet breaks the surface of the water and dissolves into a galaxy of bubbles – simple yet remarkable.

We are up and running. Kodheli cuts to bright sunlight outside a modern university building where we meet our protagonist the eponymous Erik played by Roerd Toce. Erik is as it turns out the Everyperson, the Initiate, the Peregrinato. Toce, in a plain white t-shirt, plays the part as very much the ingenue – the shambling innocence reminded me of Dustin Hoffman’s classic take on coming of age in The Graduate. 

Erik wanders through an atrium and enters a lecture theatre – we gain the impression that he is late for class. The ensuing scene is beautifully realised and will send a shudder of awful recognition of horror down the spine of all of us timid souls who have dreaded their first day of college or work. The room is packed. The bright faces of the fresh young students turn en masse to look at the new arrival with what appears to be utter contempt. Erik diffidently makes their way to take a seat up at the back where they are met by the friendly face of a young woman – Ela, played by Xhulia Musagalliu. The pair engage with each other and laughingly exchange notes. Kodheli takes the opportunity to introduce us to the charismatic lecturer, portentously described in the credits as ‘The Guide’, played in true Gurdjieff, Baba O’Riley style by Vlein Bejri. The triad of characters at the core of the movie are in place.

After the introduction to the key players, Kodheli takes a hyper-realist approach to the plot development with a melange of slow-mo and quick-fire editing employed to depict what we assume to be a burgeoning relationship between Erik and Ela. The mood is enhanced by a terrific score. In quite a coup for an indy filmmaker, the music written for the movie is provided by Jordan Grigg, a well-known composer working in the classical idiom. The music barrels along with an enchanting baroque setting to underpin the Erik meets Ela scenes – fun, bicycle rides, popcorn in the cinema. Later, as things turn darker, Grigg gives us some ominous brass to enhance the tension.

Kodheli handles the turn deftly – we realise the relationship between Ela and Erik is not what it first appeared to be as the film moves into sci-fi / fantasy territory. We are given a series of flahbacks/flashforwards which include a bizarre military parade ground hazing of Erik. We realise that Erik is on a spiritual journey and that Bejri’s Guide character is in a sense the arbiter of his fate. In a nice touch, the director adds the added ingredient of an Oedipal dimension to the proceedings.

Toce and Bejri put in strong performances, if somewhat one dimensional. The issue here is with the script – which would have benefited from giving some light and shade to the characters even within the limited opportunities allowed by the short narrative format. I was disappointed that Musagalliu as the female lead was only given a cipher role – Ela barely speaks – this gives the movie a sadly gendered patriarchal sensibility. What I would have found far more interesting, especially in the Oedipal section, would have to have had a female or trans-gender actor in the guru / guide role.

Many indy filmmakers when attempting sci-fi / fantasy fall down because the production is too ambitious and the end result can invite ridicule. However, such is the quality of the movie’s production values – the costumes and set designs are first class and Xhorxh Baxhaku’s cinematography is superb – Erik even got your hackneyed reviewer to suspend their disbelief for a while.

The contrast between the night scenes where we have Erik in introspection and the white light of the confrontation with the Guide scenes is sharply edited and highly effective. White – it seems to be an unwritten rule of the sci-fi genre that the lead character must wear a collarless white tunic with matching trousers and Erik follows this convention. White – somehow Kodheli manages to show Erik in a white room looking at a huge screen showing a swirling multi-coloured universe and our reaction is not derision – we wonder at the depiction. An astonishing piece of cinema.

Erik has a running time of just over 20 minutes and the submission notes give the cost of production as $55,000. That Kodheli and their team managed to produce the movie’s high-quality footage for an extended short narrative on such a small budget is a marvel and a triumph of indy filmmaking. OK, the film was made in Albania, where I assume production costs are relatively low in global terms, but even so.

And yet, that hydra headed monster of common sense reared its ugly heads and I am afraid to say prevailed. The problem here is, despite the wonderful feel and the superb presentation of the succession of images, the depiction of the journey of self-discovery at the heart of Erik is essentially bunkum. The Oedipal take is refreshingly interesting but that aside the storyline used so many tired cliches common to the genre it felt as though one were stuck in a lift with someone reading from the collected works of Khalil Gilbran. It seems to me that once scriptwriters enter the search-for-self-mode, they make the assumption that even seemingly banal statements – we are just memories – will necessarily make a profound impact on the audience.

However – what does your reviewer know? There are enough people watching reruns of The Prisoner on YouTube so there is the distinct possibility that Erik will make a mark on the indy festival circuit and go on to become a cult sci-fi fantasy classic.

Whatever the fate of Erik, Kodheli has laid down a tremendous marker as an extremely gifted filmmaker and one to look out for in the future. I would look forward to seeing what they might come up with outside of the constraints of working in sci-fi / fantasy. In a wider context, on the evidence of this movie, there is a definite buzz about indy filmmaking in Albania – hopefully we will see more submissions coming in from there.

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