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

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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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

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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

REVIEW: The Eight Commissioner (Osmi povjerenik, 2018) January 31, 2018

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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2018

Good literature usually doesn’t translate into good films. Success in such endeavour is even less likely when it comes to Croatian films. Sometimes it is due to issues relating specifically to Croatian cinema or society and sometimes it could be result of certain contents that get lost in translation, no pun intended. One of such examples could be found in The Eight Commissioner, 2018 film directed by Ivan Salaj.

The film is based on eponymous 2003 novel by Renato Baretić, which was celebrated as one of the greatest if not the greatest work of Croatian 21st Century literature. The protagonist, played by Frano Mašković, is Siniša Mesjak, young, ambitious and succesful politician groomed to be next mayor of Zagreb. His career comes crashing down after being caught in nasty sex and drugs scandal and the prime minister, played by Stojan Matavulj, decides to send him as far from spotlight as possible. The best option happens to be Trećić, insulated island in Adriatic Sea whose inhabitants failed to set up local government according to Croatian laws. Mesjak is sent there as commissioner in order to run local affairs and organise first elections. Even before the arrival Mesjak sees there is something odd about the island where seven of his predecessors failed in such task. The island is not covered by cell signal and doesn’t have Internet connection, while the locals speak incomprehensible local dialect. Thankfully, Mesjak gets help in the form of Tonino Smeraldić, played by Borko Perić, kind-hearted epileptic youth who works as his translator, guide and assistant. The commissioner gradually discovers the island’s secrets and wins hearts and minds of islanders, while, in the process, he begins to get fond of the place.

Two elements that were responsible for original novel’s success – political satire and linguistics – probably wouldn’t work well among non-Croatian audiences. In Croatia, however, there would be some issues with the plot and characters not corresponding well with present-day economic and political realities (somewhat different than in 2003 when the original novel was written). For this combination of comedy and drama more inspiration could be found in Northern Exposure, mainly through its portrayal of insulated but charming little community and series of lovable quirky characters, both locals and outsiders. Unfortunately, if Salaj indeed had plans to turn his film into Croatian version of popular TV show, it didn’t work well.

The acting is, for the most part, good, especially in the case of Perić, who had shown great talent for comedy. Mašković, who is supposed to be the straight man of comedy duo, lacks chemistry and , furthermore, lacks even the basic charm to win viewers’ sympathies for his character of failed politician – arguably the most despised profession in today’s Croatia. The bigger, and more important issues, is in the film’s structure and pacing. Salaj tries to stuff too much material in his film, including some delightful experiments with magic realism that, among other things, make The Eight Commissioner the first Croatian film to feature Australian Aboriginal character. His efforts, however, mostly add to the epic length of 139 minutes – rather unusual for Croatian cinema – and many scenes, especially in the beginning, are painfully overlong or unecessary. It is likely that The Eight Commissioner would have worked much better if made as miniseries instead of feature film. While the film has some bright spots, they aren’t enough to compensate its flaws or prevent it from being one big missed opportunity.

RATING: 5/10

REVIEW: Agape (2017) December 12, 2017

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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2017

There are countries where Catholic Church has huge influence on almost every aspect of life, there are countries where that influence is really huge, and there is Croatia. In 1990s this reflected in Antonia Bird’s Priest being strangely absent from Croatian cinemas, video stores or television. Times are, however, changing, although it has less to do with Croatia itself and more to do with global trends, namely the years of widely reported sex abuse scandals that Hollywood couldn’t afford to ignore any more, paving the way for other cinema industries to follow its example. Croatian filmmakers began to deal with the issue, with 2013 dark comedy The Priest’s Children using it as a part of its subplot. Four years later, sex abuse in Catholic Church is the main subject of Agape, drama directed by Branko Schmidt.

Protagonist of the film, played by Goran Bogdan, is Miran, priest who runs a parish in impoverished blue-collar suburb of Zagreb. From the outside he appears to be a good priest and a good man; he takes genuine interest in well-being of his parishioners, teaches catechism in local high school with great deal of understanding for his teenage pupils and tries his best to take care of boys from local orphanage. He also appears “hip” by spending his free time working in gym, riding motorbike and playing video games, the latter often in company of orphanage boys he regularly invites to his house. Among them is young Goran (played by Denis Murić) who appears to be very fond of Miran. Everything changes with an arrival of Gabrijel (played by Pavle Čemerikić), physically attractive boy who brings more than palpable attention from the priest, but fails to respond in kind. Jealousy, alcohol abuse, homophobia and conformism produce turn of events that would shatter Miran’s life.

In 1990s Branko Schmidt, due to his conformist “patriotic” films, was perceived as a filmmaker typical for everything wrong with Croatian cinema. With Agape he continues transformation into one of the best and most interesting Croatian filmmakers, a process that started with 2009 Metastases and continued with 2012 Vegetarian Cannibal. Just like in those two films, written by novelist Ivo Balenović, he gives uncompromisingly bleak portrayal of Croatian society’s dark underbelly and does so with a great skill. The script, which apparently took some time to be finished, is relatively simple and this reflects in short running time of 77 minutes. Everything in the film looks natural, even the acting – one of the blackest spots of Croatian cinema – is good. Goran Bogdan, known to international audience for appearing in one season of Fargo, plays his role very well. He is helped by young colleagues from Serbia – Čemerikić (with whom he appeared in The Last Panthers miniseries) and Murić. Another interesting casting choice is for the role of Miran’s wealthy and bigoted parishioner who complains about his daughter dating dark-skinned Muslim; he is played by Bosnian Muslim actor Emir Hadžihafizbegović.

Schmidt’s direction in this film is simple, but subtle. Although it deals with sex abuse, there isn’t any explicit sexual content in the film. Agape very slowly but convincingly builds the case that the priest has some disturbing urges towards the boys in his care, but leaves much of interpretation of his actions and motives to the audience.Violence is, on the other hand, quite graphic (and it caused certain controversy by being used in the pre-release marketing). Schmidt puts authentic Zagreb locations to good use, and that even includes somewhat “artsy” scene at the railway junction where two characters symbolically part ways. There are some interesting details that point to Schimdt’s sources of inspiration – the most obvious is Gabrijel looking like Tadzio in Visconti’s Death in Venice. Schmidt’s film also doesn’t shy away from putting Church sex abuse into the broader context of Croatian social pathology, which includes scenes that portray rampant and sometimes violent bigotry (more explicit among younger than older generations of Croatians) and widespread corruption, which includes Church officials involved in shady real estate deals and more than willing to deal with sex abuse allegations by burying them under the carpet. Some of the elements in the film, however, don’t work; subplot dealing with Miran’s long suffering older sister (played by Darija Lorenci) seems unfinished. The ending of Agape is open and it would look natural, but is few minutes overlong. Despite these minor flaws, Agape deserves praise, not only for the authors’ bravery in dealing with difficult and unpleasant subject, but also because it dealt with it with great skill.

RATING: 8/10

REVIEW: Get Me Roger Stone (2017) November 23, 2017

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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GET ME ROGER STONE

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2017

Old adage about history being written by winners is one that, ironically, doesn’t bear much historical scrutiny. Perspective on many historical events is often shaped by the losers, mainly because losers, unburdened by the fruits of victory, have more time to write books and also tend to have more incentive to explain what went wrong. It is rather easy to predict that the very same phenomenon will be applied to 2016 US presidential election, with books and documentaries being almost exclusively written by supporters of Hilary Clinton. One of the rare examples that tries to portray those events from the winning side is Get Me Roger Stone, 2017 documentary by Dylan Bank, Daniel Di Mauro and Morgan Pehme.

Donald Trump, however, isn’t the protagonist of the documentary. The filmmakers intead opted to portray Trump’s campaign from the perspective of one of its arguably ephemeral participants. Yet Roger Stone, portrayed in this film, is anything but ephemeral figure. 64-year old veteran Republican political operative is to those better acquainted to US politics well-known name, who also happens to be among the most controversial and most flamboyant players in political arena. The film is structured as combination Stone’s conventional biography and day-to-day chronicle of his activities during the campaign. The Stone’s early years, as presented in the film, happen to be as fascinating as present. The film depicts passionate partisan whose tendency to engage in devastating dirty tricks is matched both by great talent in executing those tricks and even greater tendency to revel in a reputation of arch-villain.

In two hours of running time, Get Me Roger Stone works as a history lesson, chronicling Stone’s career under Nixon, Reagan and G. W. Bush and reminding the audience of the most important political scandals in those years, some of which looking shocking even after few decades. In all of them Stone played certain part, which is something he actually likes to remind everyone. The film is also valuable source for future historians, because it features interviews with some of Stone’s, often better known associates, which include Donald Trump and Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort.

Get Me Roger Stone is less successful when dealing with Stone’s present than with Stone’s past. The filmmakers try to make a case that Donald Trump was actually Roger Stone’s life’s project, and that he had worked since 1980s to bring flamboyant real estate tycoon into White House. More skeptical viewers could argue that the filmmakers themselves came under Stone’s sway and gave the old political operative more importance than he objectively deserved. Nevertheless, the film is, just like the Stone himself, fascinating and entertaining. It stops being so at the very end, when the actual fruit of Stone’s (or Stone’s less known colleagues and comrades’) labour is presented in the brief montage of election clips with emphasis on leftists’ and Hillary supporters’ meltdown. Such abrupt ending, regardless of the audience’s partisan affiliation, leaves much to be desired. On the other hand, due to relations between quanity and quality, histories written by losers are more likely to be better than histories written by winners.

RATING: 6/10