Film festivals do a great job of shining a light on those films that might not otherwise get a release or, if they do, aren’t available to a wider audience. The Cambridge Film Festival has made an effort this year to highlight some of the films from the lower producing nations. And that brings us to Secret Ingredient, a black comedy from Macedonian director Gjorce Stavreski.
Vele (Blagoj Veselinov) is a hardworking mechanic who is doing all that he can to try to help his father, Sazdo (Anastas Tanovski), who has lung cancer. The perverse situation that they find themselves in is that the drugs Sazdo needs aren’t covered by his insurance and Vele can’t afford them either. A chance occurrence at work leads Vele to an opportunity to help his dad get better.
Whilst it is a quite morbid sounding premise, the humour that runs through this film is perfectly pitched. The banter between Vele and his best mate Dzehm (Aksel Mehmet) is cutting at times and feels entirely natural. Vele and Sazdo have a more abrasive relationship and that too is covered really well in the script and the performances.
When Vele’s primary effort to raise money is brutally denied, and he seems to hit rock bottom, he is left to search for alternative solutions to his and his fathers problems. Finding a recipe and baking a cake that has marijuana in it, Vele manages to convince his dad that it is from a “healer”. With nowhere else to go, this cake treatment is a last effort, a Hail Mary in the hopes that it does something to help. Miraculously, when it starts to work and Sazdo begins to feel better and is finally back up on his feet and moving around again, word starts to spread about this magical cake and its healing properties, even though Vele asked his father to keep it a secret.
That isn’t the end of the story as there are some nefarious people tracking down Vele for what he found at work and they are working their way ever closer to finding him out. Of all the characters, they end up being the most stereotypical but do still manage to pull off a good few comedic moments. Veselinov’s performance as Vele is great, managing to portray both the tragic and comic moments with aplomb. The supporting cast also manage to bring something extra to the story, particularly Mehmet has Vele’s best mate, playing the fool.
Secret Ingredient is a damning verdict on the Macedonian health service and the lack of help that can be found, that people are turning to “healers” and other remedies because the Health Service isn’t able to provide for them or, more likely, are in the same situation as Vele and Sazdo being unable to afford the right treatment.
Gjorce Stavreski’s film is really well paced, never losing your attention but manages to balance the comedy and emotion. The theme of the film, revolving around the health issues of his father, could result in it feeling a bit morbid but Secret Ingredient never falls into that as the levity and absurdity keep you away from the really dark places that this could go. Coupled with the scripting and dialogue of the relationships and interactions and this is one dark comedy that, if it manages to get a UK release, is well worth tracking down.