Dir. Gjergj Xhuvani. France-Albania 2001. 90 mins.

The last of the Balkan countries to rid itself of communist bliss, Albania has very good reasons to celebrate its new-found freedom of expression, as it is does here with this satire on enforced political indoctrination. Verging somewhere between realism of the kind that will be sadly familiar to anyone who has had the doubtful pleasure of living under totalitarian rule, and the inevitable sarcasm generated in the perspective of today, Gjergj Xhuvani's second feature paints a pretty delirious picture of the Envar Hoxha paradise. One would be inclined to burst into laughter if not for the feeling that both Xhuvani and the Ylliet Ali'ka, the writer, were not really convinced this is supposed to be funny.

An abundance of sincere and heartfelt sentiment goes a long way to compensate for some of the blunt edges The film's story-points might have been considerably sharpened, the plot is not sufficiently dense and characters are rather formulaic. But luckily, some of the rough patches of both script and direction turn into blessings in disguise: the performances and individual scenes often ring truer precisely because there is no polish to dim their natural effect. Most of the interest in the film will be as a result of its Albanian identity, and it's a safe bet that many subsequent festivals will be glad to incorporate it in their own line-ups.

The plot follows a young biology teacher, Andrea, dispatched from the capital, Tirana, to a remote village. There he is expected, first of all, to assume his political duties and only once they are taken care of, can he start considering the needs of his class. He soon finds out that these political duties consist mostly in leading his pupils to the hillside, where they are expected to write, using stones painted white, in foot-high letters, slogans whose exact wording are dictated by the central committee of the party. If liked by the commissars, a teacher might be assigned a blissfully short slogan, like "Glory to the revolutionary spirit". For teachers with an independent turn of mind, there is always a more resourceful variation, such as "American imperialism is a paper tiger", and they would be better off not to inquire about meaning of the words. While everybody in the village is conscious of the ridiculousness of the situation, no one would even dream to doubt, oppose or even smile at the strict discipline of the party and its local secretary. A heavyset person with a paranoid personality, he waves his ideological allegiance to bludgeon everybody into obedience.

Fresh and still idealistic, Andrea makes friends with the children, shares cigarettes with an illiterate shepherd considered for unspecified reasons to be the local enemy of the working class and has a fling with the French teacher. This is a serious tactical mistake since she is also fancied by the school director. Worst of all, Andrea is not sufficiently astute: when the shepherd is accused of having sabotaged the slogans that he could not read anyway, he springs to the shepherd's defence, an act that is automatically considered counter-revolutionary and treated as such.

The absurd but only too real proceedings reach a climax of sorts when the village has to prepare for the possible visit of a party dignitary and a decade-old slogan has to be replaced in a hurry to avert angering the guest. Needless to say, the black Mercedes never stops and the party leader, left once again to his own devices, punishes all those who have dared to doubt his interpretations of the orders received from the capital.

Prod cos Les Films des Tournelles, Albanian General Vision, Roissy Films, Les Films en Hiver

Int'l sales Celluloid Dreams

Exec prods Anne-Dominique Toussaint Pascal Judelewicz

Coprods Arben Tasselari, Arben Vehbiu, Gjergj Xhuvani, Raphael Berdugo, Franck Landron

Scr Ylljet Ali'ka

Cinematography Gerard Thiaville

Ed Didier Ranz

Music Denis Barbier

Main cast Artur Gorishti, LuizaXhuvani, Agim Qirjaqi