The gamble of any film about a struggling actor is that it demands two roles at once — the performer and his performances — which must convey separate qualities. Fortunately, Jasmin Geljo’s sophisticated presence in Canadian-based Bosnian director Igor Drljaca’s “The Waiting Room” offers just such depth, partly because it culls from real life. The movie follows a Bosnian immigrant 20 years after he fled his home country for Toronto, as he wanders from one dead-end audition to the next and struggles to support to his broken family. Jasmin himself is a Yugoslavian actor with 20 years of experience living in Toronto, a backdrop that speaks to the authenticity that carries each scene.
But “The Waiting Room” derives an affecting quality from more than just its credible leading man. Drljaca’s austere technique belies a complex narrative approach. Though many scenes are filled with lengthy pauses as a static camera watches Jasmin in his isolated existence, there is much to absorb in its frame, starting with the first shot: Acting in a scene set in the Croatian countryside of 1991 — a world he himself left two decades ago in pursuit of an impossible dream — the wizened, melancholic Jasmin stares straight ahead as the scenery passes behind him in rear projection. The simulated backdrop may as well stem directly from his consciousness, as he struggles to come to terms with the past while drifting aimlessly through the present.
It’s not that Jasmin has nothing left: Though his first marriage ended years ago, he maintains a second one and remains a supportive father to his adolescent son Daniel (Filip Geljo), an aspiring actor himself. For Jasmin, though he never admits as much, the boy’s struggles seem to represent a certain generational disconnect. Daniel doesn’t know the world his father left behind, but he lives within the confines of its reverberations at home by aspiring to his father’s craft.
Jasmin, however, copes with the indifference of his surroundings at every corner. A visit from his older daughter takes place exclusively within the confines of his vehicle and may as well represent an internal monologue with his regrets. In a prolonged sequence alternately at an airport hotel and some undated encounter with his ex-wife, the full weight of Jasmin’s frustrations come to the foreground, but the filmmaker smartly avoids overstatement. Jasmin’s visible grief says enough.
Despite these grim overtones, “The Waiting Room” offers plenty of amusing understatement, predominantly through the deadpan appeal of Jasmin’s face. Trapped his familial conundrums and pathetic career efforts, Jasmin bears more than just a physical resemblance to Louis C.K. on his eponymous television show, in which the performer endures similarly Kafkaesque journeys through the peculiarities of his career. Strikingly, both FX’s “Louie” and “The Waiting Room” feature punchlines in which their portly, middle-aged leads dress up in drag — and both characters are based in part on real people.
Geljo once appeared in a Bosnian television program under heavy feminine makeup; in “The Waiting Room,” Jasmin aspires to bring back his cross-dressing character with a local pal. The movie offers no better visual gag than Jasmin sitting at the wheel dressed as a woman, wearing a stern expression as he heads out to rehearse the part. Such muted humor carries over into another audition, when he’s asked to pepper his lines for a stereotypical gangster role with Bosnian dialogue and responds “Who wrote this crap?” to an oblivious off-screen director. He may as well be assailing the script to his own absurd life.
Geljo’s fixation on stillness at times has a distancing effect from the profound emotions in play, and “The Waiting Room” often feels more like an assemblage of dour moments from Jasmin’s life rather than a cogent narrative. Nevertheless, the filmmaker’s steady approach frequently leads him to entrancing visual motifs, including one supremely poetic moment in which Jasmin walks away from his car as the camera watches from the passenger seat, his figure transforming into mist through the foggy window.
Dominated by a unique blend of melancholy and existential crisis, “The Waiting Room” is a poignant character study about the immigrant experience. It avoids the simple implication that Jasmin left a better place, even he feels otherwise. Bosnia, instead, sits in Jasmin’s mind as a metaphor for his broader unrealized goals. “You can’t understand the country we had,” he tells his offspring. By the end of “The Waiting Room,” it’s hard to tell if Jasmin does, either.
“The Waiting Room” premiered this week at the Locarno Film Festival and next screens at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.