A Big Warm Hug

Modra ★★★★
(Canada/Slovakia, 80 min.)
Written and directed by Ingrid Veninger.
Starring: Hallie Switzer, Alexander Gammal.
I’ve wanted to see Modra since it was named among Canada’s Top Ten films of 2010. Unfortunately, the film didn’t receive a theatrical release in Ottawa, save for a single screening at the Canadian Film Institute in February, which conflicted with the class I was TA-ing. Modra arrived on DVD last week, so I rushed out to my local Blockbuster to rent it… and of course, they didn’t get it.

After tweeting my irritation at Blockbuster’s lack of support for #cdnfilm, I received some sound advice that the film was also available for purchase. Not wanting to be a hashtag hypocrite, I moseyed on over to HMV and picked up the copy they had in stock. It was also a more economically sound choice, too, if one factors in the price of gas it would have taken for two trips to rent/return the movie at Bank and Heron, which was the closest place to rent Modra, when gas was priced near $1.30/litre. It was also a smarter move because I liked Modra so much that I would have bought it anyways.

In Modra, a seventeen-year-old Torontonian named Lina, played by Hallie Switzer, gets dumped by her boyfriend just days before their planned trip to visit Lina’s family in her ancestral homeland of Slovakia. On a whim, Lina invites her schoolmate Leco (Alexander Gammal) to accompany her on the voyage. Leco agrees, and he and Lina soon find themselves in the small Slovak town of Modra, where all Lina’s extended family resides.
As Lina goes about the town and rekindles her family bonds, Modra offers a heart-warming story of family ties and self-discovery. As writer/director Ingrid Veninger explains in the bonus material on the DVD, most of the actors playing Lina’s relatives are, in fact, her own family members; moreover, Switzer is Veninger’s daughter. Rather than add a corny sappiness to the production, however, the casting of Veninger’s own family offers an additional level on which one can appreciate the film as a collaboration of kinship, or rather as a family reunion caught on film. Additionally, all the cast members deliver completely natural performances and dramatize the reunion with uncontrived skill and comfort
The autobiographical elements of Modra add a touching personal element to the film – it’s commendable how frankly Veninger invites the audience to explore her own roots. Modra is a startlingly intimate film: from the subject matter and the casting, to the tight framing by cinematographer Ian Anderson, Modra holds the viewer close in a deep earnest hug. Adding to the warmth of the production is Veninger and Anderson’s beautiful use of soft natural light, which is particularly striking when used to compose a shot of either the budding romance between Lina and Leco, or a pastoral landscape shot of Modra. (It’s best when Veninger combines the two.) The film also includes quick portrait shots of the characters played by Veninger’s family members, all of which make the film both accessible and personable. Veninger contrasts the naturalness of the performances and the composition by making effective use of jump cuts and sparse use of musical score. The aesthetics of the film all comes together with a sharp New Wave feel. 

Composed with honesty and candidness, Modra is an intimate portrait of family life that reveals the complexity of maintaining such bonds in an age of constant migration and change. Modra, however, offers a forward-looking nostalgia that celebrates getting back to one’s roots as a means of self-discovery.  Modra is an endearing tale of homecoming; more importantly, it’s a lovely film.