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Housekeeping for Beginners ★★★

Availability:  In theaters nationally. Not streaming at this time; for future streaming availability, see JustWatch here.


Family on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown


It can’t work. It’s all too messy, too frenetic and chaotic, too noisy (constant shouting; kids singing a pop song at the top of their lungs), too uncivil (the insults flow freely, ala “the dozens”)—and above all, incoherent.

 

And it’s about to get worse, apparently much worse.

 


Ali (Samson Selim), right, brings

emotional comfort to the children Mia (Dzada Selim) and Vanesa

(Mia Mustafi). All are Roma.




And it’s about to get worse, apparently much worse. Suada (Alina Serban), lover of Dita, mother of sullen teen Vanesa and mouthy 6-year-old Mia, and the force holding together this mongrel bunch, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Ali, a boisterous gay young Muslim Roma, is new to the house, there only as the latest sex partner of narcissist Toni (Vladimir Tintor)—they met through the “Gay Romeo” dating site. Toni is middle-aged and “white” (that is, as we learn, not Roma) and, like Dita (Anamaria Marinca), a class above the rest and employed. Most of those in the house would prefer that Ali leave, but no. (And that’s not all. As a viewer, your first task is to figure out who—and what—everyone is in this melee of a household, and how they relate to each other. If you’ve seen “Shoplifters” (2018), you’ll be familiar with the challenge.)

 

Precocious Mia (Dzada Selim) understands that “Toni likes boys.”

 

It can’t work, but it does, at least mostly. Despite the insults, it’s a tolerant bunch, indeed a “safe house” that accepts homosexuality in cultures—Eastern European and Roma—that are profoundly hostile to it. Although Ali (Samson Selim), with his bleach-blonde hair and overt gayness, seems to be an intruder, the ultimate outsider, he functions, like Suada before him, as a bridge between the group’s gay majority and straight minority (only Vanesa). He also proves essential in the effort to legitimize the family through various official (if sometimes forged) documents, including a kind of “shotgun wedding” between Toni and Dita (a reluctant couple if there ever was one). Precocious Mia (Dzada Selim) understands that “Toni likes boys” and wonders if Dita and Toni are “friends” since they “fight all the time”—real concerns for the household and for viewers. The pint-size truth-teller/inquisitor and civilizing force does her best to de-escalate verbal confrontations (“not gypsy, Roma”).


Above, "parents" Toni (Vladimir Tintor) and Dita (Anamaria Marinca), a "white" non-couple, get married to improve the prospects of the Roma children of Dita's gay partner.

Witnesses are Ali (Samson Selim), Toni's Roma partner, and a lesbian hanger-on

in the house, Elena (Sara Klimoska). The government officials, typically in the film,

are shown from behind, literally as a faceless bureaucracy.



In a culture given to the Manichean—gay vs. straight, white vs. non-white, Muslim vs. Christian, Roma vs. the rest of Europe, all overlain by class divisions—the survival of the bunch in Dita’s home depends on being practical (under the circumstances, an oxymoron). In the void left by Suada, Dita reluctantly takes on the role of “Mom” to Vanesa (Mia Mustafi) and Mia, yet she’s thoughtful and flexible enough to understand when it isn’t working, when Vanesa needs space, and to understand that she can’t offer the physical affection and emotional support that a mother provides. Toni and Dita present themselves to the world as a married couple, attending Mia’s school performance and (if uncomfortably) a dinner with Dita’s colleagues. When rebellious Vanesa goes off the rails and the community’s existence is threatened by a visit from the police, the couple makes the effort to pull it all together, to clean up their “homosexual den.” (The prize for all-out “clean up” goes to Harvey Keitel in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” [1994].)

 

The world outside adds to, even creates, the “housekeeping” stress inside.

 

This effort is one more incident illustrating the “outsider” character of this “family.” Cacophonous as the atmosphere is inside the house, at least there everyone has a role and many understand the emotions of others, although they don’t always respond appropriately. The world outside adds to, even creates, the “housekeeping” stress inside. Though Toni and Dita may be economically middle-class—and “white”—their choice of gay Roma partners means they operate outside the mainstream. The existence of the house inhabitants is akin to that of immigrants; in this case they are natives, experiencing rejection and discomfort in their own country. In response, they create their own subculture, their own family, a not so easy task for which they all are clearly “beginners.”


Left, Dita, fulfilling her promise to her gay partner, tries to mother the precocious Mia, though mothering is not Dita's strong suit.



The film opens with Suada experiencing and observing the disdain with which Roma are treated, even by medical professionals in the most sensitive circumstance. Her rant establishes the racism with which she and other Roma must cope. A trip to a town inhabited mostly by Roma, where the interlopers don’t even understand the language, presents a view of lower-class, often criminal, Roma life, a view not whitewashed by North Macedonian director and writer Goran Stolevski, known primarily for short films. (Until 2019 the country was called simply Macedonia, but it was coerced by Bulgaria and other countries into changing its name on its path to the European Union, a topic raised in the film. The film was the North Macedonian submission for Best International Feature Oscar.)

 

Stolevski’s “Housekeeping” project is to interrogate and redefine the idea of the family, and this family in particular.

 

The Roma subculture and anti-Roma racism are not, however, Stolevski’s focus. His “Housekeeping” project is to interrogate and redefine the idea of the family, and this family in particular, by taking a group already stretched thin and already engaged in a variety of difficult compromises, and putting it under additional and extreme stress. The result is edifying, entertaining, and moving.


 

Date: 2024

Director: Goran Stolevski

Starring: Anamaria Marinca, Samson Selim, Vladimir Tintor, Mia Mustafi, Dzada Selim, Alina Serban, Sara Klimoska

Countries: North Macedonia, Poland, Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Sweden, United States, Australia

Languages: Macedonian, Romany, Albanian, French; all subtitled in English

Runtime: 107 minutes

Other Awards: 8 wins and 6 other nominations (many at LBGTQ+ festivals).

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