An elegant hybrid of true-story exposé and slow-moving arthouse thriller, Serbian director Miroslav Terzić’s sober sophomore feature “Stitches” takes a familiar idea — a lone crusader taking on a corrupt system in pursuit of the truth — but delivers an unusually thoughtful, psychologically compelling character study. Taking its cue from Snežana Bogdanović’s eerily composed but fathomless central performance as a middle-aged Belgrade-based seamstress who believes she was deceived 18 years earlier by doctors who claimed her baby was stillborn, the film makes a confident drama of a cruel chapter in recent Serbian history.
Ana (Bogdanović), the wife of Jovan (Marko Baćović) and mother of teenage daughter Ivana (Jovana Stojiljković), is quiet to the point of being withdrawn. Or rather, we would think she’s withdrawn if it weren’t for an arresting, almost surreal opening scene that shows her stalking another woman, like a predator, from a safe distance. Though neither woman has the glamor of a femme fatale, the sequence sets swirling the uneasy noirish undercurrents beneath the film’s deceptively still surface.
In a gray, worn-down Belgrade suburb, Ana has a small store where she mends clothing, and a small apartment where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her relationship with Ivana is strained; Jovan is a night watchman who works odd hours. As a result, aside from the warm but worried watchfulness of her sister, Marija (Vesna Trivalić), Ana is often alone — and even when she is not, she exudes the impression of loneliness, of being hidden somewhere deep inside herself. Indeed, despite her promises to Jovan, who long ago resigned himself to the tragedy, Ana has been doggedly pursuing all possible avenues for information about the baby son they lost 18 years prior. Hospital records are incomplete; the doctor (Dragana Varagić) who delivered the reportedly stillborn child stonewalls her; and no one will tell her where the body was buried.
Elma Tataragić’s terse screenplay is less procedural than psychological. But when Ana’s diligence finally pay off and she is connected with a sympathetic clerk (Jelena Stupljanin) who performs an off-book search that seems to confirm Ana’s suspicions, the film becomes more tightly plotted, as stratagems present themselves and confrontations occur. Yet it’s the focus on Ana’s inscrutable mind that remains the most gripping element of this David-and-Goliath story. Even the roomiest of DP Damjan Radovanović’s subtle, widescreen images consider Bogdanović’s face, serene but for her flickering eyes.
This kind of slippery, “is it real or is it all in her head” narrative can often come unglued when the film approaches a resolution that answers that central question. But here, the characterization becomes all the richer and more surprising as the story unkinks itself. Part of the sorrowful, angry wisdom it delivers comes as we watch the incredulity dawn over Ana: It’s as though she has grown so used to being disbelieved or ignored or regarded as a nuisance that she has internalized all that contempt, and now doesn’t quite know how to react to being seen again after years of near-invisibility.
In just his second film, aided by an extremely adept central performance, Terzić displays unusual sensitivity and empathy for his outwardly unremarkable protagonist, and reminds us of the extraordinary stories that can be lurking in the most ordinary places. The fate of Ana’s son is finally revealed, and, with Ivana becoming an unexpected ally, the climax feels both satisfyingly honest and heartbreakingly irresolute.
Terzic’s slow-moving but powerful storytelling gradually exposes the full truth, though it could perhaps have explored the reasons behind it in more depth. Yet that’s not the real focus of the film (even if a terse title card at the end notes that Ana’s plight is not unique). The aspect of “Stitches” that resonates beyond the bittersweet resolution is Bogdanović’s deeply nuanced performance, which in every moment brings home the human cost of her ordeal. Whatever peace she may find after years of being gaslighted, the penalty this secret search has extorted from her in terms of damaged relationships, wasted energy and lost time is immense, and its resolution is cause as much for terror as relief: When the central organizing principle of your life is a mystery, will you even recognize yourself when that mystery is solved?