Ajvar, a popular and easy to make roasted red pepper spread that is a staple of many Balkan households, is a real food of the people. In the Kosovo-set drama “Hive,” the very act of making and bottling it becomes an act of rebellion for one woman, Fahrije (Yllka Gashi), who has no choice but to acquire an entrepreneurial spirit after her husband, most likely ripped away by war, goes missing. Writer-director Blerta Basholli’s debut is based on a true story, and while it certainly offers up a necessary-if-dour vision of patriarchy-dominated life in this particular corner of Europe, by-the-numbers storytelling and a flat, visual style occasionally lead to dramatic intertia. Still, Gashi is powerfully, effectively steely as a woman who must take matters into her own hands, even when they are tied by society.
Set in a closely knit little village in Kosovo, depleted of most 21st-century conveniences, “Hive” begins as Farhije hides out in a truck full of body bags, rummaging through them while looking for the corpse of her husband. After events in March 1999, we are told in a title card that closes out the movie, the village experienced a massacre that took the livces of 240 people, either killed or missing. Even more remain missing, and Farhije’s husband could be one of them.
But he’s nowhere to be found. Now, seemingly husbandless in a world where women can’t so much as step inside a cafe alone or even exist at all, Fahrije is faced with caring for her son, daughter, and ailing, wheelchair-bound father-in-law. He’s a curmudgeon left over from the old world, and refuses to let her sell her husband’s old table saw to make a few bucks. When her bees stop producing honey, Fahrije, a beekeeper along with many of the women in the village, gets herself a driver’s license and heads into the city. Stones are tossed through her car windows, she’s called a whore more than once, and faces constant resistance. But Fahrije is determined to sell her ajvar to a local grocery store, dodging gossip and physical assault in order to stand on her own.
The conservative township drives plenty of dramatic incidents that pop through this washed-out, flatly drawn movie. (Cinematographer Alex Bloom rarely provides more than mere coverage of the events, injecting them with little poetry outside what exists in the frame.) Sometime, the drama is harrowing, as when a local peddler of peppers to whom Fahrije owes money throws himself on her. Overall, the repeated insults take on a numbing quality, which is precisely the point: Fahrije accepts her slot in society with grim determination, only occasionally breaking to cry in the shower. She also has a strong bond with the other widows in town, with whom she makes ajvar, even bringing her willful daughter into the mix. (The daughter, at one point, calls her mother a whore, prompting a well-earned slap in the face.)
As a portrait of women trying to assert independence in a place that is by design slanted against them, “Hive” — with its gray color scheme and world-weary, dusty style — has plenty of evocative moments. Albanian actress Yllka Gashi turns in an unglamorous performance as a broken-down woman who remains resilient despite the circumstances.
The suspense of her husband’s fate never pays off, which is true to the reality Basholli wants to paint — life is bleak, an unfinished sentence, and those you love can be ripped away from you out of nowhere. A shimmery dream sequence, in which Fahrije appears to be swimming underwater toward her husband, only for her ring to slide off her finger and drift down into the deep, opens up the movie to a brief glimpse of the sublime. But Fahrije, in what is by now a well-trod movie cliché, awakens from the dream upright, jolted, out of breath and shrieking. It’s these sorts of pat directorial choices that keep “Hive” from bursting out of its seams.
“Hive” premiered in the World Cinema Dramatic competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it won that section’s Grand Jury Prize, Best Director Award, and Audience Award. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.