The wilful departure from reality into the comforting arms of fantasy is surely one of the major attractions of cinema, particularly evident in the abundance of superheroes currently dominating (or plaguing, depending on your point of view) multiplexes. But it’s also a key theme of THE WITCH HUNTERS (ZLOGONJE), a charming and perceptive coming-of-age tale exploring a friendship that seemingly takes a darker turn when the naivety of youth is forcibly ripped away.
Jovan (Mihajlo Milavic) is a shy ten year old with partial cerebral palsy, a condition which has left him socially isolated from his unsympathetic classmates. His parents are generous and supportive, yet Jovan prefers to remain an outcast, playing alone at home or school, fantasising about becoming a real comic book superhero. A new student, Milica (Silma Mahmuti) arrives to disrupt this routine; sharing Jovan’s desk (much to the latter’s annoyance), she too is an outsider, though for very different reasons. Her parents have separated, and her father is in a relationship with a woman who, in Milica’s eyes, can only be a witch.
Thrown together, the two gradually become friends. Jovan’s urge to throw off the shackles of his disability and become a superhero (seen through occasional nifty daydream sequences), combined with Milica’s understandable desire to free her father from the malicious spell cast over him by his girlfriend, causing her family to be wrenched apart, gives them a shared mission. Jovan’s initial reluctance to allow this odd, slightly terrifying young girl to become a real friend is eventually overcome (much to his mother’s obvious relief), and the film’s middle section mainly deals with the planning and preparation for their mission: to invade her father’s apartment at night and put an end to this apparent supernatural being and her unwanted spells.
“…the charm of THE WITCH HUNTERS lies in the empathy it builds for its two lead characters.”
Naturally things don’t go according to plan, but the charm of THE WITCH HUNTERS lies in the empathy it builds for its two lead characters. Misguided though they are, it’s hard not to feel for their individual plights and their plucky plan to restore justice. Recalling films like STAND BY ME and SON OF RAMBOW that similarly dealt with a difficult or traumatic transition to adolescence, Jovan and Milica both struggle to come to terms with the reality of their situations. For Jovan, his first real friendship gives him the impetus to see beyond his disability and the inspiration to improve his own sense of worth. In Jovan, Milica finds a much needed ally and companion, at a time when her mother is struggling to deal with her broken marriage and her father has similarly neglected his daughter’s fragile emotional state.
Both lead actors give strong performances, and as a touching tale of a childhood friendship forged in the fires of family strife, the film works beautifully, particularly in making it accessible to younger viewers. But it’s also a thoughtful and welcome take on the role superheroes and magic play in the lives of kids struggling to deal with real world problems, and why escapism can be a force for both good and bad. Though it threatens to move in to darker territory, the final scenes step back, leaving the two friends a little chastened, but also a little bit wiser – and one step closer to adulthood.