Even hardened teetotallers would be moved by The Promise, a character driven documentary of passion and determination to unleash dormant potential in a proud people and their fertile land.
Vineyards in the village of Rogljevo in Eastern Serbia once sent wine around Europe and were exhibited in Bordeaux and Paris.
Those days are long gone and this region close to the Romanian border is run down and neglected: wineries are in ruins, tourism is negligible, and the less than 200 villagers still living there struggle to make ends meet.
The Promise is a stunningly filmed documentary that follows the trials and tribulations of a French couple who relocate to a remote Serbian village with a vision to revive the lost traditions of a forgotten wine-making region.
French wine loves recognise the potential of Serbian vineyards
When French couple Cyrille Bongiraud and Estelle Germaine stumble upon the village and realise its potential as one of the great wine regions of Europe, they seize upon the idea of reviving its lost fortunes by investing their knowledge of wine making and marketing into the village.
The languid pace of life in rural Rogljevo is beautifully captured by Serbian director Zeljko Mirkovic.
He skilfully counterpoints pastoral images of verdant fields, mist-glistening mornings and amber-hued dusks with the stress and frustration that Cyrille and Estelle must endure as outsiders with big ideas.
As their presence in the village becomes known, the couple are confronted by a troupe of eccentric and colourful characters straight from the films of Serbian wunderkind Emir Kusturica.
Mistrust would seem to be the default response for most of these elderly set-in-their-ways villagers and it looks like the winemaking plans could be dead before having chance to take root.
Enthusiasm and innocence overcome mistrust and suspicion
Blinded by enthusiasm and innocence, the couple are often endearingly confounded by the cultural issues that confront them. Other times, their frustrations are more evident, such as when they fall foul of a particularly infuriating form of Balkan bureaucracy.
The changing colours of the pastoral landscape portray the passing of the seasons without the couple making great progress. Then gradually, they earn the support of the villagers who come to recognise a spark of hope in what the couple has to offer and their project is rekindled.
As if the obstacles in Serbia were not enough, back home in France the couple face haughty wine traders who baulk at the idea of a fine wine coming from Serbia – despite the region’s legacy.
Among the best of Europe’s terroir being left to rot
Wine cellars in Rogljevo and the region are being considered by UNESCO as world heritage sites. Yet despite such recognition, the place risks becoming a lifeless open-air museum, without the beating heart of a thriving community to build on its tradition and realise its great potential.
“Our story of a village dying before our eyes is symbolic of our region,’ said director Željko Mirković (The Second Meeting). “It is a symbolic story about our region in a wider sense: a place where great potential often fails to be realised.
“I hope this documentary will inspire people to act before it is too late. I want The Promise to encourage debate about how to revive this beautiful region of Serbia. We need to wake up this Sleeping Beauty on our doorstep.
“It is a crying shame that great potential in the Balkans is often left to rot. Allowing such an attitude to persist prevents us from achieving our very best.”
The film’s producer and co-author Dušan Gajić (SEETV) added: “The arrival in this village of the French couple exposed some existential questions for this region.
“The sad, striking paradox addressed by our documentary is that the culture built around the ancient winemaking tradition is disappearing as possibly the best wine terroir in the Balkans and one of the best in Europe lies in ruins.”
Dreamy cinematography, endearing interviews & gentle narrative
It is hard not to be gripped by this story, played out against the timeless bucolic beauty of the rural Serbian rural landscape and grounded in a sense of tradition and community.
With its dreamy cinematography, endearing interviews and a gentle narrative style that veers towards the melancholic at times, this engaging tale has the power to capture the imagination and encourage support for a community that is struggling to fit its past into a future that has little time for such things.
The Promise shows that without vision, life can sour so easily.
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