Qe (Flaka Latifi,) Jeta (Urati Shabani,) and Li (Era Balay) are three young women living somewhere in Kosovo trapped by circumstance, economic instability, and rampant abuse that courses through their village’s blood. While The Hill Where Lionesses Roar doesn’t completely deconstruct what we’ve come to anticipate in stories such as these however, it does manage a few surprises and is anchored by three startling performances as well as some beautiful craftsmanship from the score and its enlivened direction. Directed by actor turned writer/director Luàna Bajrami, best known for her supporting turn in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, at only 20-years-old Bajrami has already established a fearsome tone of voice, even if the script meanders throughout much of the first half.
The three girls at the center of the film all have something that isn’t so much keeping them from leaving their home—at least the only one they’ve ever known—rather than they are stuck in a town where there are only a few means of success and many of them, especially for women, are particularly archaic. When they’re denied what seems to be their only chance for freedom they meet the challenge head-on, forming a gang and forging their paths to explore their desires. Their daring to dream isn’t without consequences though and, if there’s a thematic throughline that sticks, it’s the idea that if you’ve managed to escape, keep running and don’t turn back. It’s a rather cynical viewpoint for the film to take and one that would’ve benefited from more time.
In one of the stumbling blocks of the film, the back half is immensely greater than the first, which ambles along aimlessly in the film’s pursuit of structure or even a point. Once it reaches its mission statement the story is already wrapping itself up, making the actual ending jarring rather than impactful.
It’s the thrilling escalation to the abrupt end that is the finest portion of the film and where Bajrami is allowed to fully flourish as the characters bask in the piece of freedom they’ve carved out for themselves. There’s never a sense that it’s going to end well for them and even as the girls get increasingly playful and carefree in their escapades, giving levity to what might’ve been too somber a tone, it also brings a greater sense of doom because such fleeting moments of joy are suspicious in a story such as this. The three of them are up against predetermined futures and despite all their rigorous fighting, the places that have been established for them haunt each of their steps.
It’s that taste of escape and the ecstatic feeling of hope that washes over them that, in its flightless sequences where the three dance or swim, all limbs, and open smiles, where the film is as fully formed as it ever is. The direction is much cleaner and evocative than the ambling script and there are some truly exquisite shots. Bajrami’s direction along with Hugo Paturel’s hazy and feverish cinematography set the film aflame in the final scenes in particular.
There’s such tangible feeling throughout the film, from the evocative score from Aldo Shllaku that encapsulates the push and pull between the girls’ desires and their inability to leave and the quietly ferocious turn Latifi who buries so much of her suffering beneath a fiery glare. So much of the film could be summed up by when one of them plainly states “we want.” They want for so little and then for so much. They want freedom and bodily autonomy and for a town that allows their dreams room to breathe or even exist—they want to be allowed to have fun and to get angry without concern of repercussions. They want a life that is theirs and no one else’s. While The Hill Where Lionesses Roar is far from an optimistic film, it does aim to empower its leads and whoever is watching by showing just how much can be accomplished if the person is determined enough to achieve all they deserve.