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

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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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

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REVIEW: Agape (2017) December 12, 2017

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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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

Metastaze (2009) September 6, 2009

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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History can be ironic even in the case of Croatian cinema. In 1990s, the lost decade of Croatian film, Osijek-born director Branko Schmidt used to be embodiment of everything wrong in this country’s film industry. He was widely perceived as regime filmmaker, creating government-sponsored works that presented state-sanctioned “truths” of Tudjman’s Croatia without much talent or connection with reality. In 2009 all that changed with METASTAZE, a new, “hip”, “different” and “edgy” film that won initially sceptical critics and received Golden Arena of Pula, Croatian equivalent of Oscar.

Script by Ognjen Sviličić, based on well-received novel by Ivo Balenović, describes everyday lives of four men in contemporary Zagreb. All of them share fanatical devotion to local soccer club NK Dinamo, as well as lack of any future. Their lives revolve around Dinamo’s matches and large quantities of alcohol, sometimes accompanied by drugs or outbursts of nonsensical violence. Kizo (played by Robert Ugrina) appears unaware that drinking ruined his liver, skinhead Krpa (played by Rene Bitorajac) regularly abuses his wife while Dejo (played by Rakan Rushaidat) tries to finance his heroin habit by cross-border drug smuggling deal. The only one who tries to put his life in order is Filip (played by Franjo Dijak). He returned to Zagreb from Spanish drug rehabilitation commune and tries to get a job before his neighbourhood friends manage to bring him to old ways.

METASTAZE was advertised as “Croatian TRAINSPOTTING”. There are plenty of reasons to compare those two films. Both feature realistic portrayal of post-industrial urban underclass stuck in vicious cycle of poverty, substance abuse and violence. Even the characters of Renton and Begbie have their equivalent in characters of Filip and Krpa. However, there are some major differences – Schmidt’s film lacks humour, “cool” soundtrack or any element that would make his characters and situations pleasing to audience. As a result, METASTAZE is deeply unpleasant experience, especially to those Croatian viewers more than aware that the unsympathetic characters and situations on the screen are not that far from unsympathetic characters and situations they might encounter in their real lives.

Another thing that makes METASTAZE different from TRAINSPOTTING is the context of 1990s Yugoslav wars and its consequences – the “metastases” in original title. Guns are silent, Croatia is independent and “normal” country, but many of those affected by those “years of pride and glory” can’t adapt to prosaic peacetime reality. Patriotism is distilled into most virulent forms of right-wing chauvinism and justification for vicious street thuggery. The film tries to make this point sometimes too obvious by displaying Dejo’s Serb ethnicity and suggesting that his heroin habit originated in frustrating failure to be “one of the guys”. Crime that was rampant during war years is, however, still there and the criminals don’t care about ethnicity – when it comes to smuggling heroin, Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks work together just like they did during Yugoslav days of “Brotherhood and Unity”.

Schmidt makes this depressing picture somewhat bearable by making METASTAZE short. Thus he leaves less opportunity for audience to notice some of film’s flaws. One of them is unrealistically thick Serb accent by Dejo’s father, played by Predrag “Pedjo” Vušović, one of them). Another is in some convenient plot details that diminish suspension of disbelief, especially towards the end. Schmidt, on the other hand, directs in a way that emphasises realism, with a lot of steadycam, genuine Zagreb locations and dialogues filled with too much profanity – so different from gentle, theatrical displays of verbal culture in average 1990s Croatian film. The acting is, unlike most of Croatian films in previous decade, superb, with Rene Bitorajac excelling in the role of detestable sociopath.

The result is mostly satisfying that could do wonders for Schmidt’s reputation and serve as a good sign of Croatian cinema standards being raised. On the other hand, those who were fortunate not to live in 1990s Croatia won’t be able to get many of its finer details or understand why it is so good.

RATING: 7/10