Writer/Director: Fatmir Koci, Jonathan Preece |DOP: Enzo Brandner| Cast:Blerim Destani, Flonja Kodheli, James Biberi
Synopsis: Struggling to fund the already slow-to-progress construction of his house, Bekim decides to move from his humble home town in Albania, to the seedy underworld of Amsterdam, to earn the money to complete it. There’s just a few flaws in his master plan, like leaving behind his devoted girlfriend Martha and the matter of entering the Netherlands without any papers. The latter, as you can imagine sets off a series of events that leave our protagonist in a few less than desirable circumstances – subsequently drawing him into bad company.
Enter stage left: Van Doom (yes, seriously). An Albanian migrant with links to Amsterdam’s criminal underworld; he’s also a desperate Bekim’s source of income, offering him a job as one of his drug pushers with promises of fast cash and plenty of sordid perks. Just as quickly as Bekim begins his journey as a low-key criminal, does he reject Van Doom’s wayward path after witnessing a fatal overdose. Obviously this change of heart doesn’t sit well with the aptly named drug lord-come-pimp (oh yes, Van Doom also manages a brothel) – and he’s leaving the door open under the presumption that Bekim will come crawling back.
With his Albanian love Martha (the scene stealing Flonia Kodheli), thousands of miles away and a distant romantic memory to that of his new life in the barrels of Amsterdam (no bike riding, leafy scenes here!), Bekim finds not one, but two women to occupy his time. Suzanna, a ridiculously attractive young garbage disposal woman, who offers a legitimate path to starting a new life in the Netherlands and Anna, Van Doom’s working girl who is chomping at the bit to escape the red light district and Van Doom’s stranglehold, permanently.
It’s glaringly obvious that each woman epitomise the three very different options presented to Bekim: Tradition; romanticised idealism; grim realism – but it’s the latter of the three that sets off a chain of events and has Van Doom gunning for Bekim’s head on the chopping block and, ironically, has him running all the way back to Albania.
But back on home soil, Bekim’s worries are far from over. He discovers that the money he’s been working so hard to send home (literally to fund completion of his new home) has been swindled; whilst Martha’s alcoholic and bullish father (who violently disapproves of her relationship with Bekim), has declared war on Bekim’s family.
…Oh and Van Doom turns up in Albania too.
Amsterdam Express is first and foremost, an enjoyable film with exceptionally shot scenes that include some superb shots and scenes that take place on a speeding train! And fantastic acting – notably James Biberi – who manages to be both comical but also disarmingly sinister as Van Doom.
As someone largely new to Balkan cinema, I couldn’t say if this was a film indicative of the region’s style, or even Albanian culture. That’s OK, because it’s more than just an Albanian film – it’s a well executed, brilliantly acted thrilling story.
What it did do, and very well I may add, was highlight a very long-in-the-tooth nevertheless important subject matter – but not in the way one would expect. It’s actually more defiant and to an extent it’s a film with a cautionary tale. It insists on telling the audience that, though life may look greener, the reality of leaving one’s country isn’t all that great. For Bekim, home is most definitely where the heart is – and to be honest the beautifully shot yet very contrasted scenes of a simplistic yet bright and earthy toned Albania, to that of the cold, boxed-in scenes of Amsterdam, doesn’t make it hard to see why. Often in films of this nature are we forced to see the ugly side of the west, through the eyes of immigrants.
Amsterdam Express is, in my opinion, a love letter to Albania – and a template for anyone who has had the unfortunate need to flee their country, family and livelihood in hopes of a better one.
A 23rd Raindance selection: