Romance has long been a socially accepted way to cope with the precarity of life and the prospect of death. Crackling chemistry has a way of helping us project ourselves into a future unknown, while fuzzy warm memories stave off the inevitability of our own demise. Miroslav Mandić’s tender-hearted “Sanremo” places us squarely in a place where such leaps, both backward and forward, are all but impossible: a nursing home. Specifically, one where two of its inhabitants suffer from dementia, making their every interaction an opportunity to rekindle the romance neither can remember having embarked on.
Bruno (Sandi Pavlin) spends his days worrying about his dog. He’s always eager to leave the nursing home behind and return to the house he kept for years with his wife to feed his beloved canine companion. He’s gently reminded (by his visiting daughter, by the home’s security guard, by his carers) that his home is no longer his. Or rather, that his home is now the room he wakes up in every morning and that dog and wife alike are gone. When Bruno is not finding new ways of escaping the premises, he finds himself time and again smitten with Duša (Silva Čušin), a no-nonsense woman who is similarly confused by her surroundings but whose smile makes Bruno’s heart soar.
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Slowly, though, we learn that Bruno and Duša suffer from dementia. Which makes their recurring meet-cutes — during breakfast in the mornings, playing ball outside, at the crafting table where they’re making collages, on the outings their nursing home hosts — all the more melancholy. No matter how intimate they get on any given day, the two meet each other anew soon after. Theirs are meetings that brim with the thrill of an instant connection, even on days when Duša’s more prickly demeanor beguiles the wide-eyed Bruno.
There’s a tragedy to their interactions, a pall that hovers just off-screen once you realize the Sisyphean romantic narratives they’re to rehearse day after day. There are no memories here to build off and no plans to look forward to that would make their stay all the brighter. “What has ended can’t start again,” Duša tells Bruno at one point during one of their many conversations, but in their case, what never ends is always on the brink of starting. Another time, as they ponder their respective philosophies on how (or whether) to enjoy where you are or bask in the journey of how you got there, Bruno and Duša illuminate competing if complementary outlooks on life when it’s clear the end is nearer than either would like to admit (her incessant cough, for starters, keeps getting worse as the days go by).
That with such a premise “Sanremo” never falls into either bleak or sentimental territory is due, in large part, to Mandič’s script. Opting for an episodic structure, the Sarajevo-born writer-director has created an oblique narrative that privileges fleeting moments over drawn-out stories. All Bruno and Duša have is the present, and so the film follows suit. Even scenes where we get to witness the kind of couple the two might have been (like one where they wake up in the same bed after a wayward Bruno can’t find his way back to his own room and winds up at hers instead) feel fully fleshed out. As if “Sanremo” were one of those collages Bruno and Duša create in their arts and crafts class, each moment together feels plucked from a bigger picture stripped of its context yet not any less lived in.
Called to develop characters who necessarily exist outside any linear development, Pavlin and Čušin are sublime. The former handily captures Bruno’s child-like wonder without losing the weariness that takes over his demeanor whenever the reality of his situation settles in. Čušin, meanwhile, is charming throughout, making her earthy Duša the kind of entrancing presence someone like Bruno would find hard to resist. Their performances are ably captured by regular Werner Herzog collaborator Peter Zeitlinger (“Rescue Dawn,” “Into the Abyss”), who manages to make what would otherwise be a rather claustrophobic setting into a rather beautiful and intimate scenario. Sometimes staying close to the would-be couple, at others giving them room, offering them space and privacy as they get to know each other away from our prying eyes, Zeitlinger truly gets a chance to show off in the final moments, when Bruno seeks solace for his newfound loneliness in the wintry landscapes surrounding the nursing home.
With care, Mandić lends his central couple a dignity that’s admirable to observe. If it feels somewhat small in scope, “Sanremo” more than makes up for it in the sheer ambition of its themes, which feel overwhelmingly universal. A paean to the intermittent bliss and comfort of romance, no matter how ephemeral, this Slovenian drama is a gentle wisp of a film, a surprisingly tender story about how we hold on to others even when we can’t hold on to our notion of ourselves.
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