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REVIEW: The Gift (2003) March 15, 2020

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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Today, when the global society is suddenly facing scenarios known mostly to the fans of zombie apocalypse genre and when the modern civilisation experiences disruptions not seen since Second World War, it should be wise to remind ourselves that many disturbing phenomena we are witnessing are nothing particularly new or unprecedented. That includes some rather unusual and disturbing reactions to the possibility of being infected with a deadly and incurable disease. Some of those phenomena are even not in history books and instead they are being part of today’s world, although one of its tinier and more obscure segments. One such phenomenon was in 2003 subject of The Gift, documentary by Louise Hogarth.

The film deals with effects of HIV epidemic on segments of American gay community two decades after development of first infection tests. Technology, developed mainly to stop the spread of deadly virus, has gradually resulted in sharp division of gay men into two groups – those who tested positive and those who tested negative. Through the years, with medical advancements that prolonged and normalised life of the infected, for some in latter group this division for some appeared became more the issue of uncertainty than the issue of life or death. This was especially so for the younger generation of gays, who hadn’t experienced first apocalyptic years of the epidemics and became fertile ground for development of so called “bug chaser” subculture – HIV negative gay men who actively seek to become HIV positive.

In one hour of running time Louise Hogarth explores this phenomenon through conversations with different members of gay community who have different views on the subject. 19-year old man named Doug explains how he purposely got himself infected in order to simply fit in with the San Francisco social scene. Another young man called Kenbol enthusiastically tells how becoming HIV+ allowed him to finally enjoy unprotected sex with other HIV positive men as well as HIV- men who gather on so-called “conversion parties”. On the other side there is support group of middle-aged HIV+ men who were infected unwillingly and who still deal with loss of their partners as well as most unpleasant side effects of taking HIV drugs. Walt Odetts, clinical psychologist, activist and author happens to be HIV negative, explains that even people in his, seemingly better condition, paid and still pay terrible emotional price. The Gift, through the views of some of the participants, tries to offer explanation of the phenomenon pointing the blame to the wrong approach to by authorities, namely advertising that promotes safe sex by employing over-sexualised images of men and indirectly “glamorising” the disease.

The Gift was one of the more obscure films of its time, with media and critics either ignoring it or criticising it for alleged sensationalism. This could be explained with the atmosphere of “political correctness” being brought to absurd levels, in which any critical portrayal of gay community and lifestyle, even when it is directed at tiny minority or criticism being brought by gays themselves, is being branded homophobia. Obscurity of The Gift is inexcusable, since the phenomenon that it explores deals with something that can endanger lives and health not only in gay community, but also in general public. This is especially so today, when we are faced something which appears as something much worse and dangerous than HIV, and the phenomena portrayed in this film can appear in different forms and wreak havoc among large amounts of people regardless of their gender, race, nationality, world view or sexual orientation.

RATING: 7/10

REVIEW: Ideš? Idem! (2019) January 15, 2020

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Domination of mainstream in modern cinema is such that sometimes it looks that nobody tries to make films different from each other. One of those seemingly rare films that defies such impression appeared in Croatian cinemas last year. 2019 comedy Ideš? Idem! (“You Go? I Go!” in English) looked like the opposite of everything which is supposed to be canon in Croatian film industry. Unlike dark, depressive heavy-handed dramas that deal with darks sides of Croatian present and past, this film offered something which seemed more suitable for the Bollywood audience – fairytale-like escape from harsh realities of everyday life.

It is, therefore, ironic that the stars of this film are those who, in certain way, live more in the real word than actors and film makers. Director and producer Ljubo Zdjelarević based this film on notion that in today’s world people become celebrities not through traditional media, but through Internet and social networks. Therefore, he simply collected group of the major Youtube, Instagram and Twitch stars from the countries of former Yugoslavia and created a film in which they play themselves.

Rather simplistic plot begins with Slovenian Youtube star Kaja Kočevar a.k.a. Kaya Solo going to Zagreb to visit her friend, Croatian Youtube star Veronika Rosandić, who just happened to break up with her boyfriend, bodybuilder and Youtube star Fran Lauš. She decides to comfort her by bringing her to a party thrown by Croatian Youtube star Vid Juričan. He volunteers to bring his father’s van and travel with them to Istanbul. Along the way, in Serbia, famous gamer Bogdan Ilić a.k.a. Baka Prase joins them together with friend and fellow gamer Nenad Krstić a.k.a. Tony TCTN. Group along the way gets in a lot of adventures and it all culminates in Istanbul where Bogdan is supposed to meet his arch-rival who had humiliated him while playing Scum, multiplayer online survival game.

Ideš? Idem! looks and sounds as a surprisingly fresh film. This is mostly due to great skill and editing and innovative style, that almost perfectly blends live action with images of text messages, Twitter feeds, Instagram profiles, Youtube videos and SCUM video game footage. Zdjelarević in one perfect moment even uses animation for narrative purposes. The main actors, despite not having any previous acting experience, show great skill and talent, based on years spent in front of camera, and that becomes even more obvious in scenes that feature the only professional actor – Zijad Gračić in the role of Croatian consul, whose mannerisms at times look like over-acting. Zdjelarević also keeps quick tempo and Ideš? Idem! is as long as it should be, something very rare in today’s cinema.

Unfortunately, all those talents weren’t matched by the script by Nikolina Bogdanović, which at times looks too artificial and incoherent. It starts well, with the road trip as an excellent idea to visit various countries and feature different Youtube stars, but soon it becomes apparent that the writer lost inspiration and tries to fill the running time with forced and not particularly convincing romance between two characters, as well as some cheap jokes involving certain bodily functions. It culminates in even cheaper ending that indicate authors running of ideas. However, the main idea worked and the enthusiasm of the cast and crew looks quite genuine. We should never be too harsh on films that provided more fun to the people making them than the people watching them. And even less so towards film that point to different and possibly brighter future.

RATING: 5/10

REVIEW: The Diary of Diana B. (Dnevnik Diane Budisavljević, 2019) November 28, 2019

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World War Two ended almost three quarters of century ago and slowly but inevitably perishes from living memory. In Croatia, however, it is still very relevant subject, especially in realms of politics where differences in views on contemporary issues play second fiddle to the question which side someone’s ancestor fought for in global conflict. This could be explained, to a certain degree, with the fact that World War II was particularly destructive in small and relatively poor country like Croatia, causing more bloodbath and destruction than in any time before and afterwards. And, to make things even worse, most of that bloodbath and destruction was caused by Croatians themselves, resulting in one of the darkest and the most shameful chapter of national history. That war drew out the worst out of people, but it also drew out the best. One of the examples of latter is subject of The Diary of Diana B., 2019 biopic directed by Croatian filmmaker Dana Budisavljević.

The film’s protagonist is author’s distant relative Diana Budisavljević, woman often described as the Croatia’s closest equivalent to Oskar Schindler. She was actually an Austrian; in her youth she married Julije Budisavljević, Croatian Serb surgeon who would later become a member of city social elite in Zagreb in pre-WW2 years. In April 1941 city and the rest of Croatia was occupied by Nazi Germany and their Axis allies; they installed puppet regime of Independent State of Croatia, led by fascist Ustasha movement, whose platform called for elimination of all non-Croats, namely Serbs, Jews and Romani people. Those minorities became brutally persecuted, although Budisavljević, mostly thanks to saving some of future Ustasha leaders before the war, evaded persecution himself. His wife, however, was deeply disturbed over the fate of Serb women and children being put in concentration camps and decided to collect and deliver humanitarian aid. Her efforts received further urgency in June 1942 when German and Ustasha offensive against Partisans on Mount Kozara in today’s Bosnia resulted in large number of Serb children ending in facilities like the notorious Jasenovac Concentration Camp, where thousands quickly succumbed to neglect, starvation and disease. Budisavljević organised rescue in the form of mass adoption and foster care among Zagreb families, which would ultimately save thousands of lives; her personal connections among higher ranks of German military and Catholic Church made this operation possible and offered protection to her and her husband. In May 1945 victorious Partisans entered Zagreb but the new post-war Communist government failed to recognise Diana Budisavljević’s work and, until recently, her role in those events was virtually unknown.

For Dana Budisavljević, who made only documentaries until this point, The Diary of Diana B. is the first live action film and it shows. Obviously inspired by Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, it tries to pay not so subtle homage to this film with the use of black-and-white photography. There are, however, few similarities between two film, partly due to much lower budget for Budisavljević’s film, which was made in Croatian-Slovenian-Serbian co-production. Almost all live action scenes take place indoors – in Budisavljevićs’ luxurious villa or various offices – and consists of lenghthy discussions about protagonist’s work or political situation, which serves as an exposition for viewers not so familiar with the history of Yugoslavia in WW2. Those scenes are often poorly directed, overlong and uninspired despite some of the actors, like Alma Prica in title role, trying their best to bring some life in their characters.

The Diary of Diana B. works best in documentary scenes, in which the director can apply her rich past experience. This includes authentic documentary footage made in the camps, which is almost seamlessly fused with the rest of the film; those scenes, that feature starved and sick children, many of them actually dying in inhumane conditions are actually quite disturbing and this film shouldn’t be recommended to overly sensitive viewers. Equally powerful is the documentary footage made in present day when four of rescued children, now people at the twilight of their lives, recall their experiences, horrors they had witnessed, families and loved ones that they had lost, while one of them struggles with the fact that the loss of Diana Budisavljević’s records deprived him of his proper identity. Those segments of this film make live action scenes in this film unnecessary and create impression that Dana Budisavljević could have made much better film if she took inspiration from Shoah. Although deeply flawed, this film nevertheless serves its purpose by providing important history lesson, especially needed in these times when such lessons might get forgotten and the characters like Diana Budisavljević might be needed again.

RATING: 5/10

REVIEW: The Last Serb in Croatia (Posljednji Srbin u Hrvatskoj, 2019) March 27, 2019

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Recent events in Christchurch were just another sad reminder how the ethnic and religious hatred can create tragic consequences even at places when nobody would expect them. So, it is refreshing to know that the exactly the same phenomenon – ethnic and religious intolerance – can be object of ridicule in films made in countries that made headlines by having their mutual hatred reach its tragic climax in form of wars and ethnic cleansing. Croatia and Serbia, two former Yugoslav republics that had fought long and bloody war in 1990s after the collapse of federation, now have film industries that co-operate in making joint films, some of them dealing with unpleasant subjects of Croat-Serb relations before, during and after the 1990s conflict. One of the few that took somewhat iconoclastic approach in that effort is The Last Serb in Croatia, 2019 science fiction comedy written and directed by Predrag Ličina.

The plot is set in near and unpleasantly plausible future. Negative macroeconomic and environmental trends continued both on global and national level and Croatia, which is supposed to one of the better-off parts of former Yugoslavia, is now practically bankrupt while the rest of the world fights for increasingly scarce resources like water. Croatian population is sharply divided into impoverished majority forced to beg on the streets and obscenely rich minority which includes nominal protagonist Mićo (played by Krešimir Mikić). He lacks excitement in life and can afford to be obsessed with series of cheap Croatian superhero films in which actress Franka Anić (played by Hristina Popović) plays protagonist Hrvojka Horvat. Chance to meet her is given due to sudden pandemic that turns Croatians into flesh-eating zombies. Mićo finds shelter in Zagreb hospital where he meets Franka and together with a group of survivors decides to travel towards depopulated areas near Bosnian border, where there are supposed to be safer from zombie hordes. There they find a family which, unlike their neighbours, was apparently unaffected by the epidemic. Soon it becomes apparent that members of ethnic Serb minority are immune and that their DNA might be the key for the antidote necessary to stop the global catastrophe.

The Last Serb in Croatia is the first feature film of Predrag Ličina, who, until this time, worked mostly on television. This is at times reflected in a script that tries very hard to stuff as much content as possible in relatively short running time, giving away author’s desire to put this rare film-making opportunity to maximum use. This can be felt both through fast tempo and jokes that make not only of Croats, Serbs and their respective national chauvinisms and ethinc stereotypes, but also deal with their troubled 20th Century past, ideological divides and uncertain future. Ličina’s humour is also directed at bigger picture, which includes other ethnic groups and states of former Yugoslavia, as well as what is euphemistically called “international community”. Not all of those jokes work and most of them would be completely lost to the audience unfamiliar to the history of this part of the world. Those that are familiar will, on the other hand, notice that the quality of jokes and script decreases in the second half, leaving impression that Ličina ran out of ideas. This is most evident in the “clever” twist at the very end that actually looks like a desperate and not particularly successful attempt to wrap up the story that was going nowhere.

On the other hand, Ličina’s work is satisfying from technical standpoint and his capable direction successfully hides lack of big budget. Rather diverse cast is also capable, although Mikić as nominal protagonist gets easily overshadowed by Serbian actress Hristina Popović, who excels in a role that, among other things, could be interpreted as a parody of Wonder Woman. Other members of cast are often wasted in thankless and underwritten roles; one such example could be Serbian actor Srđan Trifunović in a role of jingoistic US general that looks like a cheap parody of George C. Scott’s character in Dr. Strangelove, while another is famous Croatian singer Severina Kojić in a cameo role of clueless humanitarian activist. Despite these flaws, The Last Serb in Croatia could be commended as an imperfect but noble attempt to help different nations and communities to face their respective pasts through humour and perhaps finally start building something of a better future.

RATING: 5/10

REVIEW: What a Country! (Koja je ovo država!, 2018) February 14, 2019

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Some filmmakers become successful not because they are particularly talented, but because they have the perfect timing. One of such filmmakers is Croatian director Vinko Brešan who built reputation by breaking Croatian taboos with films being made and released in the most opportune time. In 1996, just as the war has ended, he treated this grim and traumatic subject with humour instead of pathos in How the War Started on My Island. In 1999, just as the rule of first Croatian president Franjo Tudjman was nearing its end, Brešan’s comedy Marshal became allegory for similarities between Tudjman and Yugoslav Communist leader Tito. In 2003 Brešan was the first Croatian filmmaker to deal with even more controversial subject of Croatian war crimes. His latest film, 2018 comedy-drama What a Country!, in many ways returns to those themes.

The film is structured about three connected plots, each of them connected with Croatia’s traumatic past. Protagonist of the first story, played by Nikaš Butijer, is Croatian Army general hounded by suicidal thoughts and visions of soldiers who died under his command during the war. The second story deals with government minister, played by Kristijan Mikić, who visits prison only to inexplicably locks himself up in a special museum-like cell dedicated to Croatian patriots, including Tudjman, who were incarcerated during Yugoslav rule. Third story deals with an elderly man (played by Lazar Ristovski) who, with the group of friends, steals coffin with Tudjman’s remains. All those crises are dealt by Croatian government, led by prime minister (played by Sebastian Cavazza) and president (played by Daniel Olbrychski) whose main mission is to prevent potentially devastating scandal.

What a Country! has won some of the critics with non-linear narrative structure and blurred lines between protagonists’ dreams and reality, which was apparently enough for art film credentials. The structure seems to be this film’s strongest element, with stories connected in an ingenious and interesting way, and not only by similar themes and protagonists who, each in his own way, face reality of a country which is so different from the vision they fought and made sacrifices for many years ago. What a Country! also benefits from a very good cast, with actors coming from foreign countries like Slovenia, Serbia or Poland, yet playing Croatian characters with great ease.

Unfortunately, the form itself is not enough to compensate for the lack of proper content. Sad realities of contemporary Croatia, which are supposed to bother protagonists, are never properly addressed nor explained for non-Croatian audience. Even worse is the lack of humour in the film which is supposed to be (and is advertised) as comedy. There are some clever and interesting jokes, but they are often misplaced or their impact dulled by poor pacing. Some, including the segment featuring Serbian and Bosnian characters, look like they were forcefully inserted into What a Country for political reason or in the weak attempt to broaden the potential appeal of this film outside Croatian borders. This film tries to asks some important and unpleasant questions about Croatia, but also tries even harder not to find any meaningful or useful answer.

RATING: 4/10

REVIEW: South Wind (Južni vetar, 2018) January 23, 2019

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Serbia has the most vital of all cinema industries of former Yugoslavia due to two reasons. One is rather simple – as the most populous of all those countries, it has the biggest audience pool for its films to thrive on. Second is in Serbian filmmakers not forgetting that the ultimate purpose of films is to entertain people willing to sacrifice their increasingly scarce time and resources and visit theatre. So, it is simply more likely that the audience would reward a Serbian than the film made by other countries’ industries. One of the latest film to achieve that aim is South Wind, 2018 crime thriller directed by Miloš Avramović.

Protagonist, played by Miloš Bikovć, is Petar Maraš, young man who, like so many in his troubled country, found way out of poverty on the wrong side of the law. He is specialised for thefts or luxurious cars and his career, aided by excellent driving skills, benefited from being associated by small but efficient organisation led by “Emperor” Dragoslav (played by Dragan Bjelogrlić), experienced and well-connected gang boss who serves as something like a father figure to young man. Life seems good for Petar, who just bought new nice apartment for his girlfriend Sofija (played by Jovana Stojiljković) and even dreams of running his own racetrack. However, his life is about to shatter when he accidentally stumbles on a Mercedes Benz that seems too good opportunity to miss. He steals the car only to realise that it was involved in international drugs smuggling operation, and that the cargo belonged to Golub (played by Nebojša Glogovac), vicious Belgrade gangland boss. Maraš is forced to hide while Sofija, his family and friends become target of intimidation, which also include corrupt police led by Inspector Stupar (played by Miloš Timotijević).

Avramović, who also produced and co-wrote the script, said that the inspiration for South Wind came from his own experiences of growing in Mirijevo, crime-infested section of Belgrade, during 1990s when he “saw the world without heroes”. However, its plot is rather generic and hundreds of pages could be written about ways this film was inspired by other examples of the genre. While the content might not be that original, the form and the way it is presented could be seen as refreshing, especially when South Wind is compared to other films that are made in countries of former Yugoslavia. The choice of genre itself puts South Wind clearly in the domain of commercial cinema and its authors never shy away from it. Instead, the film is filled with old mix of crowd-attracting ingredients that include gunplay, fights, explicit sexual activity, black humour and, last but not least, car chases, which is something of a rarity in films made in this part of the world. Budgets might be significantly lower than in Hollywood and major cinema industries, but Avramović proves to be quite capable director and makes this film work. Soundtrack, based on traditional folk and more modern turbo folk songs, also adds a lot to the mix.

The greatest asset of South Wind, is, however, the cast. For some observers, Biković, who has recently built status of a film star in Russia, might look to attractive for the role of street criminal, but he plays his role more than competently, although he is overshadowed by his older and more experienced colleagues. They include late Nebojša Glogovac in his last role, in which he excels as psychopathic villain; Dragan Bjelogrlić who gives very convincing portrayal of an “old school” gangster forced to adapt to new times; and, finally, Srđan Todorović (best known as the protagonist of controversial Serbian Film) as one of Petar’s unfortunate partners. This also includes Hristo Shopov, Bulgarian actor best known for the role of Pilate in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, appears in the small but effective role of Bulgarian crime boss. Probably the best role is played by Miloš Timotijević as cynical and corrupt police inspector whose schemes and shifting loyalties provide the film with somewhat unconventional but nevertheless “neat” ending.

While taking a cue from classic and more recent Hollywood gangster films, South Wind nevertheless is set firmly at modern day Serbia and deals with some that country’s issues. They include some social observations and interesting details, like protagonist’s background in former middle class family which was wrecked by years of war and post-Communist transition. The most interesting detail is in rather grim view of the close and firm connection between the organised crime and the government, best illustrated in the scene in which Aleksandar Berček, actor known for his resemblance to infamous Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, appears as anonymous but all-powerful official who would ultimately sanction characters’ fate. Even more ominous detail is in the way criminals employ media to achieve their goals, thus framing Avramović’s vision of Serbia as “world without heroes”.

RATING: 8/10

REVIEW: F20 (2018) November 23, 2018

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F20

A Fillm Review

Romantics among critics and film historians like to tell stories about many great and valuable films that never got made or went through development hell over being too “artsy” or not “commercial” enough for The Powers That Be. Such is fate usually reserved for films and their creators in market-driven cinema industries, but sometimes the opposite can happen in cinema industries that owe much of their existence to taxpayers and bureaucrats that run them. In those cinema industries chances for film to be greenlit are in reverse proportionto it being audience-friendly genre piece. One of such example can be found in Croatian cinema with F20, 2018 thriller directed by Arsen A.Ostojić.

The film had its origin ten years ago in a screenplay written by Hrvoje Sadarić,young man who happened to be Croatian Parliament clerk at the time.Despite his apparent proximity to corridors of power and despite hisscript actually winning a contest for aspiring filmmakers, it took nearly whole decade before that script became a feature film. The easiest explanation for such long development hell could be found inits content, which puts it in the genres of crime film, thriller and horror – those that mandarins in government and quasi-government boards see as worthless , too commercial and least likely to winprestigious festival awards for projects they are about to finance. F20 was, therefore, made only after huge difficulties and,because of its lack of “artsiness” didn’t receive as much attention among Croatian critics and cultural establishment as would have otherwise done.

The plot of the film is relatively simple. Filip (played by Filip Mayer) is young man who spends summer in his parents’ Zagreb apartment playing violent videogames. His only regular contact with the outside world is pizzeria whose owner Mate (played by Mladen Vulić), faced with a labour shortage, had to use his daughter Martina (played by Romina Tonković)for delivery service. Young woman, who would like to spend summerholidays with her friends partying on Adriatic coast, hates her job,but she falls in love with a young man, seduces him and decides to gowith him to the coast anyway. The only problem is the lack offinance, but Martina is determined to solve it, even if it meansstealing her father’s money with Filip’s help. Young couple, however,soon find that those simple plans have a habit of backfiring, and during a single night two of them get engaged in increasingly violent cycle of events that would end in bloodshed.

F20 is a simple film based on idea that combines many often used plots about crazy love, “simple” crime schemes going bad andseemingly ideal people turning into homicidal maniacs. Ostojić, aware of its simplicity and lack of originality, tries to spicethings up by employing non-linear narrative structure. Hence, the opening of the film shows police and paramedics dealing with bloody aftermath of the events that would be seen in the film; the notice atthe film’s opening goes even further by explaining the meaning of the title and giving the clear indication where would certain character and the plot go. Despite the spoiler-like structure, apparent lack ofbudget and occasional use of cliches, F20 mostly works as a very exciting and well-made thriller that pays homage to 1980s slasher films at the very end. This is mostly due to good direction and young actors who are very good in playing theircharacters who are one-dimensional and shallow even after major plot twist. Unlike most ofCroatian filmmakers, Ostojić doesn’t bother audience with some “deep” content or social commentary; 90 minutesof running time doesn’t leave much time for that. However, there are opportunities for some levity, mostly in the form of rather unconventional policeman played by Alen Liverić. Ostojić, probably in an attempt to win parts of Croatian establishment, uses his film to advertise certain aspects of Croatian economy, which includefamous beach party clubs at Zrče, as well as Croatian video-game SCUM, which is being played by Filip. Some critics from the left, onthe other hand, might easily frown upon certain conservative aspects of F20, mostly seen in positive attitudes towards traditional family values and negative attitudes towards youthful hedonism and gaming subculture. However, despite all those flaws, F20 deserves recommendation as a film which is good, and not only interesting for being made outside Croatian mainstream.

RATING: 6/10

REVIEW: Suburra (2015) August 9, 2018

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SUBURRA

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2018

There seems to be fewer and fewer proper gangster films in contemporary Hollywood. So, all those who want to seek new classics of that particular genre must seek them elsewhere. One of such, seemingly unexpected, candidate for new gangster film classic is Suburra, 2015 Italian film directed by Stefano Sollima. Based on the novel by Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo De Cataldo, its title is inspired by eponymous neighbourhood of ancient Rome, infamous for as den of poverty, prostitution and crime. Inspiration for the title might be ancient, but the events that inspired the actual plot are quite contemporary – downfall of two most powerful men in modern day Rome. The plot begins in November 2011, when the unnamed Pope (which looks like real life Benedict XVI) is making decision to abdicate (which he would ultimately do in 2013), just as the government of unnamed and unseen prime minister (who could easily be real life Silvio Berlusconi) is about to lose majority in Italian Parliament. Among the members of Parliament is Filippo Malgradi (played by Pierfrancesco Favino), who seems more preoccupied with the law that would allow transformation of Roman port Ostia into luxurious Vegas-style resort. The project would benefit his sponsors and associates, among them Samurai (played by Claudio Amendola), former right-wing terrorist whose modest petrol station is just a front for a headquarters of well-connected and politically protected criminal empire. One night Malgradi allows himself to engage in some drug-fueled sex with underage prostitute, leading to a tragic accident and setting a series of apocalyptic events involving various factions of Roman organised crime, political establishment and Catholic Church.

Stefano Sollima, son of Sergio Sollima, director best known for gritty 1970s crime thrillers, has already created a reputation of his own by dabbling with the same genre, both in film and television, including hit series like Romanzo Criminale and Gomorrah, the latter inspired by eponymous film. Suburra in many ways reflects the dark and depressive mood of 1970s Italy, during infamous “Years of Lead”, when Italians were confronted with realities of lines between organised crime, terrorism, politics and big business being completely and sometimes violently blurred. Sollima, however, adds a refreshing sense of style and great narrative skill to his film. The script very efficiently introduces a set of different characters – from the very top to the bottom of Roman society – and the plot lets them connect and interact throughout few days in convincing and realistic manner. Sollima is helped in his efforts by excellent cinematography of Paolo Carnera and very effective soundtrack by French electronic music band M83, creating an unique atmosphere which is noirish and attractive at the same time. Sollima’s skills are even better when he switches between styles, sometimes creating huge effective contrast between scenes of decadent beauty (like the orgy in the beginning) and those that feature uncompromisingly brutal and hyper-realistic violence (like the almost semi-documentary gunfight at the shopping mall). Suburra is also aided by a diverse and talented cast, which includes some international stars like Favino and Jean-Hugues Anglade (in brief role of corrupt French cardinal), and some lesser known actors (like Elio Germano in the role of a pimp, Giulia Gorietti as prostitute and Alessandro Borghi as brutal head of Ostia gangsters). Plot mostly avoids cliches, at least until the very end, which might seem as little bit too Hollywood-like or convenient, but it also brings some surprise by allowing seemingly weakest or the most paathetic characters to have the last word. While it is too early to tell whether Suburra would become one of the 2010s top gangster films, its success is undisputed and could be seen also in Netflix-produced prequel TV series Suburra: Blood on Rome.

RATING: 8/10

REVIEW: Vegetarian Cannibal (Ljudožder vegetarijanac, 2012) May 24, 2018

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VEGETARIAN CANNIBAL

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2018

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Immortal words of Lord Acton are more relevant to our modern world than we would like to think. And the examples that illustrate that point are more likely to be recognised in some seemingly mundane aspects of everyday life than in the distant sphere of high politics. People who are actually exercise absolute power in today’s world are physicians – the only profession that the rest of society allow to make decisions about someone’s life or death. Naturally, with such power, absolute and unchallenged by default, come many temptations for abuse. Vegetarian Cannibal, 2012 Croatian film directed by Branko Schmidt, deals with that subjects.

Film is based on the novel by Ivo Bolenović, former doctor who – we might (not) like to think – found inspiration in his old colleagues and co-workers. Protagonist, played by Rene Bitorajac, is Dr. Janko Babić, top gynecologist in one of Zagreb’s top clinics. At first glance, he looks like the dream son-in-law for any upper-middle-class mother – apart for successful career, he enjoys top physical shape, “hip” musical tastes and seemingly progressive social values embodied in his vegetarianism. His professional life, on the other hand, displays alarming levels of incompetence, with patients sometimes dying in surprisingly messy fashion, while many having their lives completely ruined. Dr. Babić, nevertheless, has apparently high opinion about himself, which allows him to treat patients with other disdain and often employ all kinds of abuses towards his subordinates. His real talent, however, is getting away with it. In this he is helped by corrupt policeman Ilija (played by Leon Lučev) who not only brings him protection and political connections, but also introduces him to the parallel world of seedy night clubs and dog fighting, controlled by Jedinko (played by Emir Hadžihafizbegović), shady but well-connected “businessman” who runs human trafficking/prostitution operation and needs Dr. Babić’s expert services with his female “merchandise”, which includes illegal abortions.

Based on the conventional genre parameters, Vegetarian Cannibal is a drama, but there were some critics that described it as a horror film. This is mostly due to some graphic scenes of surgery that included large amounts of gore, disturbing enough to make some audience sick during its 2012 Pula Film Festival premiere. Film is, however, most disturbing when its content is put in the context of everyday Croatian reality. Dr. Babić is not some kind of supernatural demon nor deranged axe-murderer; he is just a person who happens to be in position which makes his greed, incompetence and lack of morals more destructive than in more regular circumstances. Croatian viewers are disturbed when they realise that they might encounters plenty of such characters in hospital, courts and various offices. Even more disturbing is the realisation that many of them aren’t that different from Dr. Babić, and that many of them would yield to temptations under his circumstances. This is most evident in scenes during which the doctor, faced with official investigations and possible professional ruin, resorts to all kinds of tricks, lies, manipulations, stealing and falsifying records; in those scenes many Croatians might recognise themselves dealing with situations created by decades of harsh socio-economic realities in post-communist period and even find some sort of sympathy for the main character. Those scenes are also the closest when Vegetarian Cannibal comes to being a comedy, albet dark one.

Branko Schmidt, who recently built reputation as one of the best Croatian filmmakers, handles this film very capably. It is well-paced, well-edited and mercifully short. Film lacks compact conventional plot and functions more like a character study, with series of small vignettes illustrating Dr. Babić’s descent of depravity which, ironically, corresponds with his rise in social standing. Rene Bitorajac is excellent in the main role, while the rest of cast does very good job in small, but memorable roles. Not everything in Vegetarian Cannibal is perfect, though; some scenes seem over the top or a clumsy attempt to put the all blame for Croatian problems on uneducated and primitive post-communist nouveau riche from Bosnia. Some characters are undeveloped, mainly Dr. Babić’s loyal nurse played by Nataša Janjić. However, those willing to stomach this slice of unpleasant Croatian reality on the screen are going to be reward with one of best films recently made in this part of the world.

RATING: 8/10

REVIEW: Comic Sans (2018) April 3, 2018

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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Even small cinema industries like Croatian can expect occurrences when two recently made films are looking very much alike. The last such example could be found in Comic Sans, 2018 film directed by Nevio Marasović. Which just happens a lot of plot details with previous Croatian film, 2017 The Eight Commissioner directed by Ivan Salaj. Both films feature relatively young, upcoming and successful citizen of Zagreb who is, faced with unexpected crisis, forced to interrupt his good life in Croatian capital and spend some time on the remote Croatian island.

Protagonist of Comic Sans, played by Janko Popović Volarić, is Alan Despot, successful copywriter whose career allowed him lifestyle most Croatians could only dream of, which includes relatively luxurious apartment, expensive cocaine habit and almost any woman he could lay eyes on. But not everything is well in Alan’s life, and one of the reasons could be found in his former girlfriend Marina (played by Nataša Janjić). The end of the relationship affected Alan very badly, and, following disastrous post-break up encounter, Alan makes complete mess of himself at important corporate party. Because of that, he reluctantly accept proposal of his father, bohemian painter Bruno (played by Zlatko Burić) to accompany him to the island of Vis, where their old aunt has died and presumably left them some inheritance. Alan’s arrival on the place he barely remembers brings another unpleasant surprise in the form of Barbara (played by Inti Sraj), his former Slovenian girlfriend who is about to marry another man.

Comic Sans is far from the carbon copy of The Eight Comissioner. It actually looks more inspired by typical Hollywood “Oscar bait” films, especially those made with relatively small budget and featuring specific genre blend of comedy, drama and road film. Because of that *Comic Sans* in many ways looks formulaic with its set of charmingly quirky characters and trying to check all required marks. One of them is presence of Slovenian and Serb characters, necessary for film to have some sort of success in neighbouring countries and proving that the authors are far from regressive nationalist bigotry that appears to be on the rise in present-day Croatia. Another is obligatory presence of LGBT character (in rather unexpected scene) that should bring some progressive credential to the authors.

Yet all those efforts fail because Marasović chose rather unlikeable character for protagonist. Alan, portrayed as spoiled member of priviliged Croatian elite is simply too dislikable for audience to empathise with, and Janko Popović Volarić doesn’t do anything that could make viewers root for his character. Script, often with burdened with failed attempts of humour doesn’t help, and there is also an unpleasant impression of Comic Sans being unfinished. Whether it is due to Marasović’s failure to properly end his film or budget constrains is difficult to see. Overuse of a song by legendary Croatian singer Mišo Kovač is another problem, which could affect even those viewers who happens to be his fans. The only bright spot of this film is Zlatko Burić, Croatian actor working in Denmark, best known for the sinister role of drug lord Milo in Pusher trilogy. Burić, who brought few of his colleagues from Denmark to the set, obviously enjoyed playing completely different character of laid-back neo-hippy parent, who happens to show more responsibility and maturity compared to his seemingly more successful son. Burić almost succeeds in lifting Comic Sans above the mediocrity and we could only hope that he would appear in more Croatian films in the future.

RATING: 4/10