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REVIEW: The Constitution (Ustav Republike Hrvatske, 2016) November 2, 2016

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2016

There are some films that are supposed to be liked and praised regardless of whether they display excellence of film-making talent or provide entertainment to the audience. They can expect accolades merely for their authors “having a heart in the right place” or expressing views “on the proper side of history”. More often than not, such films sacrifice subtlety with predictably poor results and, despite being predictably cheered by certain segments of cultural establishment, quickly sink into oblivion. It takes a very special sort of talent for film to avoid such fate. One of them is Rajko Grlić, veteran Croatian film-maker whose latest film Ustav Republike Hrvatske (“Constitution of Republic of Croatia”), or The Constitution (in international distribution) deals with some important and socially relevant subjects.

The plot is set in contemporary Zagreb, in a residential building where the group of characters is afflicted both by personal issues and by historical events that have transpired decades ago. Vjekoslav Kralj (played by Serbian actor Nebojša Glogovac) is a relatively affluent high school teacher who spends nights walking the streets dressed as a woman. Maja Samardžić (played by Ksenija Marinković) is his neighbour, a middle-aged nurse sharing a small apartment with her husband, policeman Ante Samardžić (played by Dejan Aćimović). One night Kralj is ambushed and badly beaten on the street by group of young homophobic thugs, so Maja Kralj volunteers to help him recover and take care of his elderly, senile and disabled father (played by Božidar Smiljanić). In exchange, Kralj volunteers to help his dyslexic husband prepare for the exam necessary for keeping his job, during which the most difficult subject is a knowledge of Croatian Constitution. The scheme doesn’t go as well as planned because both men discover something they don’t like about each other. Kralj, despite being openly gay, shares extreme right wing views with his father, former member of pro-Nazi Ustashas in WW2, and expresses utter disdain and hatred for Serbs, regardless of their community being almost non-existent in Croatia quarter of century after violent dissolution of Yugoslavia. Ante, however, happens to be an ethnic Serb and he is revolted and personally offended by his tutor’s bigotry. In order to teach him a lesson, he starts to personally investigate attack on Kralj and tries to bring his attackers to justice.

Rajko Grlić enjoyed reputation as one of the more modern film-makers of former Yugoslavia, and one of the more willing to explore darker shades of its history. In The Constitution he explores how such dark and traumatic past continues to haunt the present in contemporary and independent Croatia. Croatian politics is still revolving around ideological divisions created in WW2 when parts of Croatia supported Ustashas while other supported Communist-led Yugoslav Partisans. Screenwriter Ante Tomić is usually associated with the left hemisphere of Croatian politics and few years ago he experienced street physical assault, albeit not as severe as his character in the film. While the film was being made, Croatia itself had new government with some members who expressed radical views not that very different from Vjekoslav Kralj, most notably in case of controversial culture minister Zlatko Hasanbegović (whose actual physical appearance resembles Vjekoslav Kralj). All that happened after Croatia joined European Union, thus supposedly adopting noble and high standards of democracy, freedom of speech and tolerance that associated with modern Western civilisation. Of course, like in many such countries, especially in post-Communist East, those high ideals were challenged by the economic realities of global recession, now mirrored in increasing tide of radical populism and nationalism, some even reminiscent of 1930s. In such circumstances, noble declarations, like those in Croatian Constiution, mean very little and are ignored or, at best, misunderstood by large segments of public. Grlić and Tomić made this film attempting to explain what Constitution and the state built on it actually meant.

The script very ingeniously tries to bring this message through limited settings and very limited number of characters, each with his or her own frustration. The most ingenious decision is to have Kralj frustrated both by his past inability to conform to the realities of Communist Yugoslavia (when his family was persecuted and abused by authorities) and his present inability to conform to ideal of “proper” Croat being masculine and purely heterosexual. Even more ingenious idea was to give this role to Glogovac, whose seemingly sympathetic portrayal of Serb Chetnik WW2 leader Draža Mihajlović in Serbian television miniseries Ravna gora created some controversy in section of Croatian public. On paper, idea of having Glogovac playing bigot Ustashas-loving Croat looked like a cheap provocation. In practice, Glogovac did a splendid job, giving humanity to a character whose views many in the audience would find irredeemably offensive.

Ante is played by Dejan Aćimović, one of Croatia’s most prolific and skilled character actors. This character have interesting details and could be seen as some sort of Kralj’s anti-thesis because he lacks education and often behaves erratically and sometimes violently, in deep contrast to “refined” intellectual Kralj. Script introduced interesting idea of Ante, portrayed as a victim of implicit anti-Serb bigotry, having some bigotry of his own, expressed through homophobic remarks at his effete tutor. This route, however, wasn’t properly explored. The script dealt more with the idea of tying those characters into some sort of peaceful co-existence. This task was performed well by Marinković who portrays Maja as tough, no-nonsense and practical character, whose daily exposure to various human misfortunes equipped her well to deal with contradictions and frustrations of those two men.

Characters are nevertheless well-written and well-played. The main problem of The Constitution is relatively thin plot that resolves itself predictably, in a series of clichés reminiscent of Hollywood feel-good comedies. Many of small details, especially in dialogues, will be lost to non-Croatian viewers, especially some sarcastic remarks directed at certain personalities and institutions of the cultural establishment in contemporary Croatia. There is, however, one interesting detail that makes The Constitution something beyond typical “message” film – a recurring sub-plot about local psychopath poisoning dogs whose presence at the very end deprives it of cheap and clichéd happy end. The Constitution is far from perfect and far from being seen as classic, but it serves its purpose – reminding audience of some important but forgotten values – in a strangely explicit but, at the same time, incredibly ingenious way.

RATING: 7/10