The spare, tightly wound drama “Hive” opens with the movie equivalent of a hand grabbing your throat. An unsmiling woman with a hard, monumental profile stands alone next to a truck. People mill around nearby, murmuring indistinctly. Abruptly, the woman ducks under some police tape and into the truck, where she hastily begins unzipping one white body bag after another and just as quickly scanning their contents, her nose wrinkling at the exposed bundles of tattered clothing, remnants of missing persons. She’s soon ejected by a worker, but her search continues.
The woman, Fahrije (Yllka Gashi), is looking for her husband, one of the missing, who disappeared years ago during the Kosovo War. Now, with her two children and a disabled father-in-law, she struggles to keep the family going. She labors with the beehives that her husband once managed, selling jars of honey at a local market. Sales are modest and sometimes close to nonexistent, but the bees are her only means of scraping together a meager living. Every so often, she meets up with a women’s collective whose members face the same hurdles under the unhelpful watch of the town’s men. And she keeps looking for her husband — a haunting, troubling phantom.
A liberation story told with easy naturalism and broad political strokes, “Hive” tracks Fahrije on her path to independence. (It’s based on the experiences of an Albanian Kosovo woman of the same name.) Like its protagonist, the movie is stern, direct and attentive to ordinary life. The writer-director Blerta Basholli doesn’t bludgeon you with the character’s miseries, or hold your emotions hostage. Fahrije isn’t lovable; sometimes she’s scarcely likable, which means she’s more of a human being than an emblem of virtuous suffering. She has her charms, though these tend to emerge in the intimacies she shares with her family and female friends like Naza (a piquant Kumrije Hoxha).
With her husband presumably dead but with no corpse in the graveyard, Fahrije is stuck in a cruel limbo, an uncertain status shared by others in the collective. Prevailing norms mean that these women aren’t allowed to remarry, and they’re not allowed to do much of anything else, other than care for their families, socialize with other presumptive widows and display subservience to men. Even Fahrije’s more seemingly innocuous efforts to support her family — selling her husband’s old table saw, for one — are treated like scandalous affronts to him, their life and their world. She’s shamed at home and in public, harassed and demoralized, simply for stepping into the role of provider.
Basholli doesn’t revisit the Kosovo War in documentary detail or dig into its geopolitical backdrop; she also doesn’t illuminate the cultural and social practices that so harshly circumscribe the lives of these widows. She isn’t interested in partisan politics, nor is she waving any obvious flags. Instead she concentrates on the textures, gestures and practices of everyday life, lingering over how Fahrije tends the hives, tries to fix a leaking faucet, bathes her son, feeds her family and painstakingly processes ajvar, a hot pepper sauce that she cooks, bottles and hopes to sell. Yet in focusing on this one woman, Basholli is making an argument about what types of war stories are worth telling.
There’s little doubt where Fahrije is headed, and the movie sometimes tries a bit too strenuously to brighten her difficult journey. Even so, “Hive” seizes and holds your interest simply through the drama created by sympathetic characters trying to surmount awful, unfair hurdles. Mostly, though, what holds you rapt is Gashi’s powerful, physically grounded performance, which lyrically articulates her taciturn character’s inner workings. Together, the performer and her director reveal the arc of a life through Fahrije’s gestures and in the hard lines of her jaw, in her unsmiling lips and in her quickly lowered gaze. And while the character’s stoicism seems like an unbreachable wall, these two women dismantle — and rebuild it — to stirring effect.
Not rated. In Albanian, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 24 minutes. In theaters.