High concept thriller Incarnation is the latest Serbian film to attract attention, as word of mouth builds in the wake of premiere screenings in the UK, US and in the Balkans.
Following the film’s world premiere at London’s celebrated Raindance Film Festival and a showing at ScreamFest in Hollywood, the fast-paced actioner from Belgrade director Filip Kovacevic has more screenings lined up for November.
Audiences at Germany’s prestigious Cottus Film Festival (Kammerbühne, Cottbus: 8/9 Nov) and Night Visions in Helsinki, Finland (Kinopalatsi, Helsinki: 9/12 Nov) will be next to see the film that is attracting so much attention.
Incarnation is a visually striking thriller about a seemingly ordinary young man (Stojan Djordjevic) who gets stuck in an enigmatic loop, in which he gets killed repeatedly by four masked assassins.
Incarnation: Not your usual time loop genre movie
Each time he wakes on a city bench, the deadly chase gets longer as he races to avoid their bullets, recover his identity and find who set him up with murder.
If you think this has all been done before, think again. Without giving the game away, Incarnation has taken a refreshing and intelligent angle on the theme.
“What distinguishes Incarnation from other films in the time loop sub-genre is the mechanic that is not based on strict closed repetition, and the ending is sort of inverted compared to the usual ‘getting out of the loop’ ending,’ said director Filip Kovacevic.
“The story is about the quest for deeper meaning that troubles many young people. When you look at the oldest stories known to us, that quest always contained a strong relationship with the concept of death. My attempt was to make a simple introspective story in which the protagonist seeks deeper meaning for his existence, while going through the very visceral chase with Death.”
Self-taught director delivers impressive Serbian thriller
Pretty impressive stuff for a debut feature from a self-taught filmmaker who only graduated in theoretical maths from Belgrade University while mid-way through making this film. Not that this deterred him.
“I think that myth has to be redefined in the modern world, because the old ways of propelling spiritual alignment are being ridiculed and extinct in our day to day life,’ said Filip. “I believe in the power that cinema has to reshape old myths and infuse them with new energy.”
As the film progresses, the lead man – who remains unnamed – becomes increasingly aware of his mortality and the apparent futility of his personal actions.
“That is an essential narrative, contained in the oldest stories known to us,’ said Filip. Once you accept your mortality, an intimate relationship with the eternal grows stronger and suddenly you become free. Once you let go of your infantile ego, you can do whatever you truly want. These themes are mythological by their very nature.”
Incarnation is more than just a title for Serbian action thriller
Audiences have been leaving cinemas with plenty to talk about after watching Incarnation, as this is one movie that is unafraid of presenting a story that makes an audience think. Not everything is as clear cut as Hollywood likes to make out.
“It is a difficult story to tell and it carries a lot of risks, but I wanted to make an attempt,’ said Filip. “The story is extremely introspective. It arcs inside the character’s head.
“His journey starts inside and goes outwards, because he has to examine his relationship with the world around him, and find his new place in it. The climax tries to lead the viewer through the character’s awakening into a deeper reality.”
A lot of discussion has centred of the film’s title, Incarnation (Inkarnacija), which was well chosen, as Filip explained. “The title refers to at least two elements of the story.
“The most obvious one is the controlling mechanism underneath the narrative, in which the main character wakes up again and again, each time he gets shot to death. He goes through the process of reincarnation.”
Cinema audiences get a deeper meaning of Incarnation
“But the deeper meaning lies in the main reveal of the story, which is why the word lost its prefix in the title. The main character uncovers the empty existence he had before he assumed his current identity and learns what motivated his transformation, or incarnation in other words, into a living human being.”
Producing a film that is so much more than blood and bullets demands that the audience is treated with respect and intelligence, especially when not everything in the story is clear cut.
“I hope that audiences will be open to the ambiguity of the ending and to the possibility that it contains some deeper meanings when you try to examine it,” said Filip.
“People come up and start explaining their theories about the film’s meaning that are very different to mine, but completely true in their own way.”
“It surprised me how all those theories lead to the exact thing I wanted to convey through the story. The ending holds different meanings for different people who try to understand it.”
Vision, precision and preparation for Serbian film director
To carry off such a concept on the big screen takes clear vision and precision, which meant months – even years – of preparation before cameras could roll.
“I aimed for a formal approach that would make full use of the story’s deeper themes and try to elaborate them visually, so the film was planned well in advance,” said Filip.
“I like to know exactly what I am aiming at before I start filming, like many of the masters: Hitchcock, Kurosawa and Kubrick. They constructed films in a rigid way and executed them systematically on location and in the editing room.”
“The challenge is in finding life in this mechanical construction, in letting your actors live and breathe within those carefully designed shot progressions. It was hard, but I think maths studies taught me how to maintain the systematic approach I needed to get a firm grip on filmmaking.”
“The whole film was shot out of order, and assembled as a huge puzzle. In the end, my editor Djordje Stankovic managed to breathe life into the Frankenstein monster I had made. It was nerve-wracking, but we pulled it off.”
Clearly, Filip has moved on somewhat from the Indiana Jones parodies he made in his bedroom aged 14.
His ambitious debut feature is impressing critics and has been seen to have the all-important slow-burn appeal of a cult classic that audiences love.
So what is next on the slate? “My next project will be a completely different film on all levels,” he said. “I am aiming for a more traditional story structure that has a strong love element, while retaining deeper levels of meaning, which will be conveyed through raw emotion.”
“I have been developing it for some time now. I have a complete story. When you are making your first feature film you learn you can’t beat things with a stick. You have to let it grow, nourish it carefully like a small plant that will become a tall tree.”