Technically masterful but narratively opaque, Australian director Peter Sant’s Maltese-language debut feature Of Time and the Sea (Ba?ar ?mien) is steeped in enigma so thick you can’t see through until the end. Part post-apocalyptic fable, part avantgarde rumination on existential themes, Sant’s struggle to create a meaningful message is both hypnotic and rambling.

Somewhere on a Mediterranean island called “The First”, a despotic, ailing patriarch known as “The King” (Narcy Calamatta) leads a dull existence in an underground bunker with his two grown-up daughters. The oldest (Mandy Mifsud) is not only part of an obscure white-uniformed order but has also taken on the role of housewife since the mother’s relocation to “The Second”. Methodical and submissive, she is almost a substitute mother for her younger taciturn sister (Ruth Borg), whose sole task is to build walls around the house and along the coastline – or “bastions”, as her father calls them. The strange, restrained interaction and lack of warmth between this uncanny triangle remains undisturbed even as random visitors – a neighbouring couple looking for food, a Chinese traveller, a lost sousaphone player – pass by. Everyone seems to be biding their time and eat microwaveable food from the same plastic boxes (where do they come from?), waiting for some great change that never happens. In the meantime, the sisters hang up plastic bags filled with filthy water and a piece of mirror around the house, a brass band appears out of nowhere and the white-clad order watches some sort of indoctrinating film about the semi-religious cycle creating “The First”, “The Second” and “The Third”. Sounds mysterious? By the time the youngest daughter holds a monologue while three brass musicians aggressively feed her microwaved noodles, you’re lost.

Beautifully shot with a meticulous eye for composition and colour, DoP Martin Testar’s images leave nothing to chance. Whether it’s the softened chiaroscuro lighting inside the family’s subterranean home or the extensive wide shots that contrast minuscule human figures against large portions of land or sky, Testar’s visuals create drama where dialogue and plot are scarce. The sound design, often gradually leaking from one quiet scene into the other, is equally powerful and suggestive – thumps that seem to come out of nowhere in a wide shot of a barren landscape are revealed to belong to a rug hit with a carpet beater a couple of seconds later.

There are echoes of Lucile Hadžihalilovi?’s island mystery Evolution and even the eerie dreamscape of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but Of Time and the Sea refuses to unfolds its mystery in a somewhat self-satisfied way – instead, you’re stuck in a constant waiting room-style state, hoping for an invitation to enter that never comes. It’s a bit like when your older brother knows the meaning of the joke and doesn’t tell you.