A Serbian low-budget sci-fi film featuring a renowned adult entertainer in the role of an android designed to help (and pleasure) her astronaut/operator on the trip to Alpha Centauri, sounds like something that could, at best, aspire to be a cult-classic taken apart by trash-movie enthusiasts like Mystery Science Theatre 3000, or, at worst, languish in the depths of IMDB’s Bottom 100, only occasionally drawing ire from Gender Studies majors who stumbled upon it in the dark recesses of the internet.
I definitely did not expect a visually stunning, ambitious, and timely, examination of love in the age of AI and damage that wounded masculinity can impart on the world. However, Ederlezi Rising soared above my wildest dreams of what this movie would be.
Although its slow pacing and artistic homages to Sci-Fi films of 70s and 80s may prevent it from becoming a house-hold name, I am almost certain that it is at least guaranteed a place of a cult-classic of South-East European cinema.
Directed by visual artist-turned-director Lazar Bodroža and adapted from a 1980s short-story by Zoran Nešković by Dimitrije Vojnov, an established Serbian screen-writer, Ederlezi Rising focuses on the relationship between a lonesome Yugoslav astronaut Milutin (Sebastian Cavazza) and Nimani (Jessica Stoya Stoyadinovich in her first feature film role), an android forced on him by a Soviet-style Ederlezi Corporation, to make sure he is kept on track (and entertained) on his mission to install a new ideology on a remote capitalist planet.
Milutin, an archetypal emotionally damaged brooding type, is initially resentful of his new companion, but slowly starts using (and abusing) his position of absolute power and control. Nevertheless, his Pygmalionic tendencies make him to desire even more out of Nimani and, predictably, things start taking a wrong turn.
Where “Ederlezi” rises above run of the mill treatment of such stories is by offering a nuanced, empathetic but striking take down of Milutin’s brand of masculinity. Despite by (almost by design) not passing the Bechdel test, copious sex scenes (including rape) and almost fetishistic nudity, Nimani, helped by Stoya’s wonderful acting, is the film’s rational and emotional driving force who exposes Milutin’s many flaws and delusions.
The whole enterprise could have easily devolved into an exploitative apologia for misogyny, pandering to a type of a vulnerable male geek who would post about involuntary celibacy on Reddit.
Thankfully, throughout the film’s tricky story, its authors give us a knowing wink and steer it towards sober discussions of possibility of love with control and our ability to know ourselves which would not be out of place in a good Black Mirror episode (indeed Season 4’s first episode tackles a similar topic).
Despite its art-film approach, i.e. frequent longish intermezzos which initially thrill, but in the end feel a bit like filler, and brainy subject matter, Ederlezi is not stuffy or self-important. There is a palpable sense of fun that its team was having: there is a good amount of humour, deliciously pointed at Eastern-European stereotypes, and even a few visual gags and references that will make its ex-Yugoslav audience chuckle.
Visually the film is also stunning: from the smart use of Belgrade’s socialist architecture to wonderful sets and costumes. Fans of old-school sci-fi will also love the inventiveness by which the team made their small budget not constrain their creativity or ingenuity.
Ederlezi Rising is a wonderful gem of film which sets the bar higher for Serbian and ex-Yugoslav cinema, whose attempts at returning to global relevance, have too often resulted in wither uninspired aping of better foreign movies, or resorting to “Slavsploitation”, through stereotypical obsession with violence, bigotry and grey, socialist-era cityscapes.